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Tennessee cities should control their own governing fate | Opinion

By William Lyons,

2023-03-14
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A new set of concerns popped up at this year’s General Assembly in Nashville. It’s about the structure of city governments, a topic long left to local leaders and voters. Of course there’s a place for legislative engagement with cities. The state regularly limits city authority on the policy front. But city voters are the best suited to alter their governing structure.

Earlier this month, the General Assembly reduced the size of councils in cities with metropolitan forms of government to a maximum of 20. Nashville, with twice that many, was the only city affected. Whatever the motivation, this state-mandated change reflects a real challenge to long respected traditions of home rule.

Nashville had 40 council members per term since Metro was established in 1962-1963. That’s a lot of members, many more than I think is optimal, but there was a complex set of reasons for this decision. Most importantly, Davidson County voters approved this charter after having defeated another proposed metro charter with a 21-member council four years earlier. The charter has remained pretty much the same since its adoption. It’s apparently what local voters prefer. In 2015 they overwhelmingly rejected “Amendment 2,” which would have reduced the council to 27.

Knoxville's home rule charter and unusual system

It's not just about Nashville. Knoxville’s home rule charter, in place for over 50 years, has also come under the threat of a General Assembly rewrite. HB817/SB506, which passed the House, would “prohibit members of local governing bodies to be elected through an election procedure that requires candidates to be nominated from a district and elected at large.”

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Knoxville’s system is admittedly unusual. There are nine City Council representatives. Three run at large. Six run from districts. The district elections take place in two phases. Candidates first run in the districts where they live and seek to represent. The top two vote getters in the districts then compete citywide in November.

Knoxville is the only city that has such an arrangement, just as Nashville was the only city affected earlier, so while the legislation is not technically targeted, the result in each case is the alteration of the home rule charter for one city.

Knoxville's system works for the city

The logic of Knoxville’s system is that every representative has a district and a citywide constituency. Knoxville would likely have run into trouble under provisions of the Voting Rights Act if the will of minority voters was regularly overturned by the white majority in the citywide runoff. That does not happen. The first choice of the majority African American 6th District is routinely the winner in the runoff. In fact, the first choice of voters in all districts in the primary is usually upheld in the citywide general election.

Exceptions do occur, if rarely. In 2017 the ultimate winner in the citywide phase for District 3 had been the runner-up in the primary. However, it is not as if District 3 voters were aggrieved for long, if at all. Councilwoman Seema Singh was the overwhelming choice of both her district and citywide constituencies when she ran again in 2021.

I have closely observed this system for decades. It works well for Knoxville. There’s no evidence that it systematically reduces the impact of district representation. At present, all sitting district council representatives were the first choice of their respective district voters. They also have a citywide perspective.

There has been virtually no movement locally to consider changing the way council representatives are selected. It’s not been the subject of any public discussion. If Knoxvillians feel that their voices are not appropriately heard, the proper way to make this change is to put it on the ballot in the form of a charter amendment, discuss the matter, conduct a robust campaign and vote.

The Senate appears to have wisely pushed the pause button. Imposing a change in the local governing process in this manner contradicts the underlying logic of home rule. This is a principle that matters.

William Lyons is Director of Policy Partnerships for the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. He also served as Chief Policy Officer for Knoxville Mayors Bill Haslam, Daniel Brown and Madeline Rogero.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy or the University of Tennessee.

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