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Nashville sues over Tennessee law halving metro council size

The Nashville skyline
Tennessee’s new law reduces Nashville’s metro council from 40 members to 20 and requires the city to redraw council districts by May 1, a deadline the city’s lawyers called unreasonable.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
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Nashville officials on Monday sued over a new Tennessee law that will cut the Democratic-leaning city’s metro council in half, a move that follows the council’s rejection of efforts to host the 2024 Republican National Convention in Music City.

The law reduces Nashville’s combined council from 40 members to 20. Though it applies broadly to city or city-county governments, Nashville is the only one that is affected.

The lawsuit says the reduction violates requirements in the state constitution about council member term lengths and local control. Additionally, the lawsuit argues that it’s too close to this year’s council elections in August to make the overhaul. Officials say more than 40 candidates are already running.

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Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the proposal Thursday, shortly after the Senate cast the final vote needed. Lee’s spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation Monday.

“In imposing these Council-reduction requirements on Metro Nashville just before a local election, the General Assembly undermines the purpose of local-government consolidation, ignores numerous other constitutional prohibitions on such a reduction, and creates confusion and chaos among citizens and candidates,” the lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court states.

Republican lawmakers who spurred the change argue that they’re acting within their legal authority to reduce an oversized government.

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“Local government bodies need to be a size that allows them to function efficiently and effectively without compromising their duty to represent the people,” state Sen. Bo Watson, the bill’s sponsor, said last month.

Critics in Nashville have decried efforts to reconfigure its elected government while the city continues to grow and pull in more visitors, residents and revenue to the state. Others have argued that the change will erode representation of minority communities and hamper council members’ ability to address constituent needs.

The statute requires Nashville to craft new council districts by May 1 — a deadline Nashville’s legal officials say is unreasonable. The lawsuit says the law rushes a redistricting process with various requirements, including minority vote dilution standards under the federal Voting Rights Act.

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The law says that if a metro government can’t make the changes for the next election, current members’ terms are extended a year, and the next term will shrink to three years, then return to four for subsequent councils. The lawsuit says the scheme violates the state constitution.

Nashville has operated as a combined city-county government under a 40-member council since 1963, when leaders were wrestling with consolidating the city with the surrounding county, and others were working to ensure Black leaders maintained a strong representation in the Southern city.

To date, a quarter of the council’s seats are held by Black members, half are held by women and five identify as LGBTQ.

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State lawmakers in the General Assembly have “reneged” on a “constitutional compact” by shrinking the council without local voters’ approval, according to a court filing by Nashville that seeks to block the law while the lawsuit proceeds. Additionally, local voters declined to reduce the council’s size during a 2015 vote, the filing notes.

Meanwhile, the fight over local control is playing out at statehouses across the country.

In Mississippi, Black lawmakers have denounced a plan by the state’s majority-white and Republican-led Legislature to take over power from the capital city of Jackson. In Missouri, lawmakers are pursuing legislation to strip power from the Black woman elected as the St. Louis prosecutor. State lawmakers are also pursuing a bill that would allow Missouri’s governor to control St. Louis police.

In Tennessee, the new law is one of several measures the Republican-dominated Legislature has proposed this year after Nashville leaders spiked a bid to host the Republican National Committee last year.

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A separate bill would give the state control of the governing board for the city’s airport, stadiums and other landmarks, while another would remove Nashville’s ability to charge the tax that funds its convention center. Republicans have also offered a bill that would block cities from using public funds for reimbursing employees who travel to get an abortion.

The bills align with Tennessee Republicans’ push to limit Nashville and other cities over the years. This has included curtailing Nashville and other cities’ ability to ban short-term rentals, including Airbnb, and barring cities from decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana — which Nashville and Memphis had moved to do.

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