Nashville Tax Referendum Tied Up In Court

Photo: Signs for the Davidson County Election Commission at the Metro Southeast Facility, a complex of Metropolitan Nashville Government office.

Photo Credit: Vivian Jones / The Center Square

Published May 18, 2021

By Vivian Jones [The Center Square contributor] –

A referendum election on reforms to limit Nashville’s property tax rates, end lifetime benefits for public employees and make it easier for officials to be recalled is again held up in court.

Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville

Davidson County election commissioners voted last week to send the Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act to voters in a special election July 27. In response, the Metropolitan Government and a Nashville business PAC filed a lawsuit. Election commissioners voted, 3-2, on Thursday to ask a judge to decide whether an alternative proposal from the Metro Council to maintain the Metro Charter should go to voters.

The Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act, written by attorney Jim Roberts, is a slate of six reforms to the Metro Charter, on which 12,398 Davidson County voters have petitioned to hold a referendum election.

Sparked by Nashville’s 34% property tax increase last year, voters petitioned for a referendum on a similar set reforms in 2020, and election commissioners, represented by Nashville School of Law Dean Bill Koch, asked a judge to decide whether an election should be held. Mayor John Cooper called the effort a “poison pill,” and threatened to cut city services such as trash pickup, school budgets and first responder staffing. After a trial last fall, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled the proposal was unconstitutional and prohibited an election.

The 4 Good Government group, led by Roberts, decided to try again. Roberts again collected more than 14,000 signed voter petitions and delivered them to the Metro Clerk in March. After comparing them with voter signatures on file, Election Commission staff verified 12,398 signatures.

Before the Davidson County Election Commission’s first organizational meeting with two new members, Metro’s Department of Law retained Koch to represent the Election Commission. Commissioners found Metro’s retainer created a conflict of interest for Koch and voted to hire new, independent attorneys to advise the commission on the 4 Good Government matter.

Commissioners then had to determine how many signatures are sufficient to trigger a referendum election and whether enough signatures were filed. According to the Metro Charter, signatures equal to 10% participation in the last general election are required to trigger an election. Based on the November election during which a special election was held for a school board vacancy, 31,212 signatures are needed. Based on the August general municipal election, 12,142 signatures are needed.

Metro Legal Director Bob Cooper advised commissioners the November election should be the basis for determining the number of signatures needed. The commission’s new attorney, Vanderbilt Professor of Law Jim Blumstein, advised commissioners the August 2020 election should be the basis.

Commissioners voted unanimously to base signatures needed on the August election and found that sufficient signatures were filed.

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After hearing testimony opposing the petition from a member of the Metro Council, commissioners voted May 10 to send the issue to the public in a special election, to be held July 27.

Mayor John Cooper called the effort an “unconstitutional attempt to sabotage our city using a California-style referendum.”

“Nashville is solving big problems and making big investments in our future,” Cooper said. “The proposed amendment jeopardizes that important work. It threatens our ability to invest in teacher pay, to hire more first responders and to build more affordable housing.”

Less than 24 hours later, the Metro Government filed a lawsuit, claiming the petitioned reforms are unconstitutional, in bad form and insufficient signatures were filed. Separately, the Nashville Business Coalition, a pro-business PAC, also filed a lawsuit, asking for a judge to prohibit an election from taking place.

The Metro Council unanimously voted last month to offer its own proposal for a public referendum that would maintain the parts of the Metro Charter affected by the 4 Good Government petition. Commissioners voted Thursday evening to ask a judge whether the Council’s proposed amendment should go to voters.

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