Metro filed a complaint against the City of Forest Hills in Chancery Court on Monday, aiming to spoil the affluent satellite city’s plan to launch its own municipal court. The move left a sense of frustration and bewilderment among Forest Hills officials.
Forest Hills attorney Matt Foster, first alerted to the development by The City Paper, seemed surprised and called the Metro Department of Law’s action “very disappointing.”
“All Forest Hills wants to do is enforce its own ordinances,” Foster said, adding that under Metro’s legal interpretation, General Sessions Courts do not have jurisdiction to hear matters involving Forest Hills’ separate zoning and property laws.
“If Metro General Sessions judges can’t hear those cases, no one can enforce the ordinances,” he said. “So the city rightfully wants to be able to enforce its property condition ordinances, its zoning ordinances.”
In February, Forest Hills’ three-member commission voted to create a new city court that would consist of a city judge and clerk. Foster said the city hasn’t moved forward to appoint a judge, nor has it taken any other action to advance the new system.
Forest Hills Mayor Bill Coke said he was surprised by Metro’s action, given a conservation he had with Mayor Karl Dean last Thursday, prior to Forest Hills’ regular commission meeting, which happened to be hours before Dean was re-elected to a second term.
“Mayor Dean called me Thursday afternoon and said they would bring a lawsuit if we did appoint a judge,” Coke said. “As a result of that telephone call, we deferred action on it at our meeting.”
In Metro’s complaint, filed Monday afternoon, city attorneys cite the clause in the Metro Charter that addresses the operational and service capacity of so-called “small cities,” which includes Forest Hills, as well as Belle Meade, Berry Hill, Goodlettsville and Oak Hill. A sixth satellite city, Lakewood, was recently dissolved through a special election.
Small cities, the charter reads, may continue to exist with their functions “the same as prior to adoption of” the charter, created in 1962, consolidating the various small municipalities into one, united government.
“Prior to consolidation, the City of Forest Hills did not have a judge, a city court, or a police department,” Metro Department of Law Director Sue Cain wrote in a letter addressed to Mayor Karl Dean and Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors. Cain added that prior to the drafting of the charter, Forest Hills’ city recorder had the authority to enforce its ordinances.
“Legally, in order to protect the Metropolitan Charter adopted by the vote of the people in June 1962, and to allow the Metropolitan Charter to carry out its purposes, the Department of Law has determined that it must file an action requesting a declaratory judgment in the Chancery Court,” Cain wrote.
This isn’t the first time Forest Hills has tried to exercise its governing autonomy, nor is it the first time it has butted heads with Metro as a result. Two years ago, Forest Hills voted to create a new police force, which drew a similar reaction from Metro attorneys, who cited the identical clause of the Metro Charter.
Forest Hills’ desire to launch its own police department never came to fruition.