Weekly Obsession: Want a better Metro? Cut the size of the council

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 1:08am

During the Metro Council’s twice-monthly capitulation to the Mayor’s Office Tuesday, a handful of council members raged that they were uninformed about the Dean administration’s latest big-ticket project — the West End bus rapid transit line known as The Amp.

Phil Claiborne wanted to know what A-M-P stood for. (Nothing. It’s a noun, not an acronym.)

Bruce Stanley said he was “kept in the dark” about “The Amp or the A-M-P.”

Tony Tenpenny admitted, “I really don’t know anything about it.”

While Tenpenny’s honesty about his ignorance is refreshing, in a way, it’s also troubling.

There are certainly valid questions about the local funding for the project, whether it would be better positioned on Charlotte Avenue instead of West End, and whether this is yet another case of the suburbs and Metro’s poorer sections seeing their tax dollars pay for an East Nashville-downtown-West Nashville amenity.

But for multiple members of the legislative body to claim they are completely without knowledge of the latest high-profile, high-dollar initiative from the executive raises another valid question: Why are there 40 people on the council?

With the way the council so regularly prostrates to the will of the Mayor’s Office, a broader question might be why have a council at all, but rest assured, state law requires cities to have legislative bodies.

But only the Metro Charter calls for one so hilariously outsized. Only two cities in the country have larger councils — New York and Chicago — and even the most hyperbolic Nashville boosters would have to admit that perhaps Music City isn’t quite on the same plane as those two metropolises.

There is, of course, some virtue in a large council — by definition each member represents fewer people, and the hope is it makes the legislators better reflect their constituencies.

On the other hand, a large council serves to diffuse the power of individual council members. As Josh Stites told The City Paper, the mayor hardly cares if he is a no vote, because his initiatives will sail by a 39-1 margin.

Even if Stites finds nine like-minded colleagues … the mayor gets his way 30-10.

If a weak, ineffectual, rubber-stamping city council is the goal, Metro has achieved it — and indeed, the history of Nashville’s metropolitan consolidation will show that was by design, the architects of the charter ensuring that the almost lily-white outlying areas of the county would never see their power structure threatened by the more racially diverse city.

In the five decades since consolidation, the oversized council has proved to be rarely more than an inconvenience for an ever-stronger mayor.

It is a part-time job, and apparently many councilman don’t have the time or energy to focus even on highly publicized, multimillion-dollar projects like The Amp. So out-of-the-loop was Tenpenny that he suggested, straight-faced, the city should explore building a subway, though that idea was long ago dismissed as overwhelmingly expensive.

It’s time for the council and the people of Nashville to consider a smaller legislative body. Among the nation’s largest cities, the average council size is one member per 50,000 or so, which would give Metro a 12-member council. That level of contraction is unnecessarily dramatic, but a cut to 20 members would, without any budgetary change, allow for twice the pay — which might be enough of a carrot to encourage members to pay more attention to massive initiatives — while also increasing the value of each members’ vote and, just maybe, providing a more effective check against an increasingly imperial executive.

Such a change to the charter, though, would require approval from the council itself, which would not only require members to vote for their own elimination, but to also be informed about a huge issue.

Sadly, both requirements are equally unlikely to be met.

7 Comments on this post:

By: Badbob on 6/18/13 at 7:07

Absolutely. There are so many on the council that no one is held responsible.

12 might even be too many.

By: bfra on 6/18/13 at 8:16

Cut the size & next election, vote Karl's "yes sir" men out.

By: i.am.a.taxpayer on 6/18/13 at 8:20

People who have been around Metro or who kept up with the history of how the Metropolitan form of government was approved know why the council is so large.

Such a large council results in their involvement in micro issues that should be handled administratively by Metro departments (like in other cities). The Metro idea was great, but some things have not worked out as planned. The country still has separate urban and general services districts, so it is not completely unified.

By continuing with an overly large council, we are perpetuating the focus on less significant issues than with the more significant issues of Davidson County. It would be very difficult to pass a charter amendment when the focus is not specificially about how to help Davidson County (but instead on potholes, zoning, etc.).

There should be a charter amendment to reduce the size of the council, and it should probably revisit the term limits requirement also.

By: JohnGalt on 6/18/13 at 10:25

Looks like Antioch has scored more Metro largesse near the mall that Metro virtually supports.

By: JayBee56 on 6/18/13 at 10:47

I agree completely. Council needs to be full time, less members. There is no balance between mayor and council - it is all weighted toward the mayor. If it is one government, why are there still two tax rates? Why not one - and the default rate should be the GSD, not the USD. After 50 years, Metro needs some realignment.

By: Captain Nemo on 6/18/13 at 12:30

No matter if it 12 or 6 district, each should have a council office located where it is easy access for the constituents to reach there council person.

Now we will have to look into the cost of full time Council and term limit a i.am.a taxpayer suggest;

By: govskeptic on 6/18/13 at 4:28

The reason the council is set up the way it is comes as no surprise. There were so
many swaps going on when the Metro Charter was being put together it became
almost criminal. The top proponents of the large council were the City and County
Mayors. They knew that size would be more controllable by the new Metro Mayor,
and it's worked every since with only a few exceptions. Greed and their own power
loss will prevent this council will never put it on the ballot for a Charter change