Opinion: Local metro government push in 1964 would have created a body with 12 district representatives and six at-large members

AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / The Nashville skyline is shown July 11, 2022.

Sixty years ago this week, on the same day Nashville was swearing in the 40 members of its Metropolitan Council for the first time, the Metropolitan Government Charter Commission here was determining the size of its proposed council.

Metro government fever had seized the state in the early 1960s.

In addition to Nashville and Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville also had looked into the possibility of combining their city and county governing bodies, and some small municipalities also were considering the idea since the legislature had cleared the way for governments outside the state's four metropolitan centers to do so.

However, Memphis had turned down a metro bid in 1962 and Knoxville a few years earlier, but both were said to be watching how the Metro Nashville government -- approved in a 1962 referendum (after a 1958 loss) -- fared in becoming the first city in the country with true consolidated government.

In 2023, though, Nashville remains the only one of the four to have a metropolitan government, and the Republican-dominated legislature earlier this year decided the state capital's ruling council was too big and passed a bill to reduce it to 20 members.

Newspaper archives revealed why it began at a size that legislators who whittled it down this year said had become too unwieldy.

Asked about the number of council members at an early 1964 news conference following a three-day seminar on metro government in Nashville, Mayor Beverly Briley said local traditions for size needed to be taken into consideration when drawing up a metropolitan charter. In Nashville, he said, the city had had a large city council (31 members, elected from districts) and Davidson County a large county quarterly court (54 members). A large metro council (35 elected from districts and five at large), he said, needed to be formed to honor those traditions and to get the approval of voters.

Were it up to him, he said, he would like to have had about half elected at large and half elected from districts. Though the city's charter has been amended for minor measures since its 1962 adoption, it has never had a major, comprehensive revision.

In Chattanooga, on the day Briley was taking his place as mayor of metro Nashville, the local charter commission settled on 16 members -- 12 from geographical districts, three at-large members and a vice mayor who would be elected at large and would be the presiding officer of the council. Seven months later, the charter commission increased the council size to five at-large members for a total of 18 people.

The population of Hamilton County at the time dictated that seven of the districts would be tightly compacted within the Chattanooga city limits. Another would extend from Lookout Valley across Signal Mountain and all the way to Rhea County on the northern end. So rural were the eastern and northern parts of the county that still another district would begin at the Georgia border, extend along the border with Bradley County, widen out to the Tennessee River around Harrison and run between the river and the Bradley County border all the way to the top of the county, then jump across the river and pick up all of what is today Soddy-Daisy. And with all that area, it was still the county's 10th smallest district in population, with the districts ranging between 15,566 and 22,982 people.

In a telling civil rights-era sign for a city and county not ready to fully embrace its Black population, charter commission member Seth Sizer insisted that Blacks be represented and, based on population, should have about 20% of the representation on the metro council. However, in the end, in what officials said was a compromise, Blacks would be represented in two predominantly Black districts, approximating 12 1/2% representation.

With Briley saying metro government would be the answer for Chattanooga, with support from outgoing Mayor P.R. "Rudy" Olgiati and incoming Mayor Ralph Kelley, along with backing from the Greater Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee Taxpayers Association, and the local Citizens Taxpayers Association, the proposal appeared to have strong momentum.

Metro government, they said, would replace outdated city and county governments, eliminate duplication of services, be more efficient and be closer to the people.

On Election Day, April 28, 1964, voters spoke decisively against metro government, with 53.5% of registered voters braving violent rain and hail storms to cast a ballot. The referendum lost 3 1/2 to 1 in the city and 5 to 1 in the county. Only four of the county's 70 precincts -- Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Ridgeside and Riverview, then the city's wealthiest precincts -- voted to combine the government.

Analysts suspected a feared tax rise in the unincorporated county areas and the fact many of the officials of the new government would be appointed rather than elected tipped the vote.

The city and the county kept their respective forms of government until lawsuits forced them to change in 1989 and 1978, respectively. Now, even with nine members (City Council) and 11 members (County Commission), the bodies sometimes seem too big. But at least the voters through their elected representative -- and not the state legislature -- got to determine the size of their government.