By day, Jim Gotto walks the floor of the Tennessee State Capitol as a freshman Republican lawmaker who rode a wave of public disenchantment with the Democratic Party in November to help turn an already GOP-heavy House of Representatives more red.
In the evening hours, around 6:30 p.m. every other Tuesday, Gotto can be found a few blocks away at the downtown Metro Courthouse, playing the role of a Donelson-Hermitage district council member, one of only a handful of conservative voices in a 40-person body that, while nonpartisan, leans left-of-center.
“I’m extremely busy right now,” said Gotto, noting that he also sits on the nine-member Metro Planning Commission. “It’s more at the state. It’s pretty much Monday through Thursday. Of course, you’ve got council squirreled in there on the odd Tuesdays.”
Indeed, it’s a full plate of legislative duties for Gotto, a retired 61-year-old BellSouth engineer, Nashville native and Vanderbilt University graduate who is thoughtful, plainspoken and polite in conversation. If history were reversed, and Gotto hadn’t won his District 60 seat six months ago, his former Democratic rival Sam Coleman, also a Metro councilman, would be in the same position — holding titles in both the state and local legislative bodies. For Gotto, it’s only a short period of overlap: He is term-limited in the council this fall.
Though his future is bound to Capitol Hill, Gotto seems to be enjoying his current position as a sort of liaison, demonstrating a willingness to use his state seat — and its supremacy — in an arguably paternalistic fashion to help fix the ills of the local government he simultaneously serves.
Gotto unabashedly supports a state bill introduced by Williamson County Rep. Glen Casada aimed at nullifying Metro’s recently approved nondiscrimination ordinance, already signed into law by Mayor Karl Dean, which requires Metro contractors to provide employment protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers. And without notifying Metro officeholders beforehand, Gotto has engineered a state effort to move Metro’s election date to coincide with presidential elections beginning in 2016, an effort to mend the periodic challenge — like the current year — of hastily redrawing district council lines with fresh census data before Metro’s election.
In straddling the line of state and local influence, Gotto has irked some of his council colleagues, incited others to claim conflicts of interests against him, and set off a broader debate about whether a person should be able to hold other elected offices while serving on the council. It all seems to have ushered in a rare period of partisan squabbling for a council that’s supposed to have no party affiliation.
At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, a favorite among Nashville progressives, told The City Paper last week that if re-elected, she plans to introduce an amendment to Metro’s charter that would prevent Davidson County citizens from serving in both bodies, a move that would ostensibly mirror a recently approved policy in Mt. Juliet. Barry and others have already sponsored a memorializing resolution, signed by 30 council members, that would put the council on record as opposing Gotto’s election-date move.
“I don’t want to make it personal because I don’t think it’s about the individual representative,” Barry said. “I think it’s about the overall ability to serve without a conflict. We specifically have a nonpartisan body by design and by charter because that’s what Davidson County wanted. We get elected to another office that is partisan, I think it poses a conflict, especially when you’re dealing with potential legislation that crosses into both areas.”
Gotto’s use of the dual roles has reverberated outside the council chambers. Longtime Nashville attorney and Democratic supporter George Barrett, whose threat of a lawsuit against the city spurred the council’s expedited redistricting process, questioned Gotto’s support of state Republicans’ attempts to overturn Metro’s nondiscrimination bill now that it’s been signed into law.
“Doesn’t he take an oath of a city council member to uphold the ordinances of the city?” Barrett said. “That ordinance has been signed by the mayor and passed by the council. Isn’t that [state bill] in conflict with that obligation?”
Gotto turned to precedent to defend allegations of being conflicted — and he has a point. Throughout the 48-year history of Metro government, several council members have also served in the state legislature. They include Harold Love, current council members Tim Garrett and Edith Langster, as well as current legislators Brenda Gilmore, Thelma Harper, Sherry Jones, Gary Odom and Janis Sontany. They’re all Democrats.
“Megan Barry needs to talk to the people within her own party,” Gotto said, alluding to the history of Democratic crossovers. “Because Tim Garrett did it, Brenda Gilmore did it, Gary Odom did it. The list goes on and on. So I guess it’s OK for them, but when a Republican does it, it’s not OK. I’m not surprised at all that she would say that.”
Garrett, who for 15 years served concurrently as a state representative and councilman, said the only conflicts he ran into during that period were related to timing — and that only happened about three times. “A meeting might have run over a few times,” Garrett recalled. “There really wasn’t a problem, at least during those years.”
Conservative Councilman Robert Duvall said Gotto’s service in state and local politics is no different than what Gilmore did a few years ago. He also said Casada, not Gotto, is “carrying the water” on the state’s attempt to strip local municipalities of the right to enact nondiscrimination policies that affect the private sector. Duvall said he doesn’t see the need for Barry’s charter amendment.
“I don’t see why it’s necessary,” Duvall said. “I don’t see where it’s hurt anyone in the past. And in fact, in some ways, it [empowers] our governing body maybe even more so because we have state representatives we can go to that can possibly help us with legislation that can help this city.”
At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine is also unsure about banning one’s ability to serve simultaneously at the state and Metro. He stressed that Gotto is in a rare situation of holding both seats for only a handful of months. Still, Steine isn’t pleased with the way Gotto has attempted to shift Metro’s election cycle from August 2015 to November 2016.
“I certainly think that his unilateral attempt to change our election laws in such a hurried fashion without any consultation with anyone on the local level, and not even trying to work within our council system to analyze the situation and to make recommendations, is very unusual for Jim,” Steine said. “I’ve never known him to not want to work with members of the council, and I frankly thought he had more respect for both the council and for local government in general.”
Gotto’s endeavor to move Metro’s future election dates comes in the form of an amendment to a mundane caption bill. It’s slated to go back before the House state and local government committee this Tuesday; it was deferred last week.
“I chose not to,” Gotto said when asked why he opted not to confer with other council members. “That’s the short answer. They don’t confer with me when they want to file legislation.”
Gotto said he wants to end the headache that occurs every 20 years when Metro must rush the realignment of political boundaries in advance of an August election using updated census data released in the spring. The council approved newly redistricted lines last week. Besides eliminating the cost of an extra election, Gotto believes the changes would yield other results.
“The real positive out of this is that if I am successful in coinciding them with federal elections, the voter participation in local elections in Davidson County is just going to multiply unbelievably,” Gotto said. “It’s dismal currently.”