Opinion: Reducing the size of government in Nashville — by state edict — not the way to go

Contributed Photo / The nighttime skyline of Nashville is pictured.

If someone had asked us, we would have told them we think 40 people are too many for a governing body. But had it been Chattanooga or Hamilton County, we wouldn't have wanted anyone else to make that determination but Chattanooga or Hamilton County.

The supermajority of Republicans in the Tennessee legislature, though, took that decision out of the hands of Nashvillians and decided the issue themselves.

Forty council members, they decided, were too many for the governing body of the state's capital city. Their bill limits such metro or municipal government bodies to 20. Within two hours of its passage Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee signed the measure into law.

Legislative Democrats say the measure is purely payback for the Metro Council deciding last year that the heavily liberal city shouldn't host the 2024 Republican National Convention, although the state overall decidedly leans conservative.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, the Senate sponsor, said in January that was not the case at all, that the size of the council had been a common topic of conversation in the halls of the state capitol for years.

"Local government bodies need to be a size that allows them to function efficiently and effectively without compromising their duty to represent the people ...," he said at the time. "We believe -- I believe -- this is really talking about having an effective and efficient, more than anything, level of government."

Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, said before Thursday's Senate vote that the bill would be doing Nashville's mayor a favor.

"We're not punishing this mayor at all," he said. "We're rewarding the mayor. Every mayor in the nation, in the world, would rather deal with a smaller body. Fewer people to talk to."

Watson closed his argument in favor of the bill on Thursday by reciting what he said was a quote from a Metro Council member: "He said, 'We live in a city that's growing at an exponential growth rate. And as a consequence, we need to become more efficient and effective in government. And large does not always mean good.'"

Frankly, we can't imagine how ponderous, disparate and pontificating a government body with 40 members might be. The new 11-member Hamilton County Commission already seems too heavy on occasion to us, and that's not even considering the several members of the body who feel like they must add their voice to every issue, from the distribution of federal funds to a resolution authorizing the purchase of new pens.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who is running to be mayor of Nashville in this year's election, said the Republican measure is clearly unconstitutional under a 1953 state constitutional provision and that the issue will wind up in the courts. Watson said the bill is constitutional.

That city's Democrats also said fewer council districts will mean more constituents per district and, thus, council members less responsive to constituents' needs. In addition, they said it will reduce minority representation.

To the latter argument, we would note that it will reduce all representation, not minorities alone. And if those who redistrict the county do it fairly, they won't reduce per-capita minority representation.

But back to the payback allegation.

Nashville originally had agreed to be a contender for the Republican convention, but the council withdrew its agreement in July. Its mayor cited concerns about security, having to tie up city resources for the event and having to shut down the city's central downtown area except to convention business. Metro members also suggested hosting the GOP would go against the city's values.

Republican leaders not surprisingly grumbled about the decision at the time, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, suggested there likely would be "ample discussions on this issue" when the legislature reconvened.

Now, what's done is done, barring a lawsuit challenge.

But there may be more. A pair of bills advanced through Senate and House committees earlier this week that would change the way the boards of Nashville's Metropolitan Sports Authority and Metropolitan Airport Authority are chosen.

The sports authority bill would change the selection of 13 members from the purview of the mayor to 10 by state leaders and three by the mayor (primarily because the state is putting $500 billion toward the Tennessee Titans' $2.1 billion new stadium and then has to oversee it). The airport authority bill also would put the responsibility for choosing members more in the hands of the state since, according to one Republican senator, the state is the primary funding source for the airport.

We understand the reasoning in both bills but believe local leaders are always better arbiters of boards concerning their government. The same is true for the Metro Council size. We think 40 members is too unwieldy, but that should have been a local decision. And the fact the decision was likely made for what we also think was a bad move -- rejecting the convention -- doesn't make it any better.