“Our entire community is faced with a critical time of decision,” declared a treatise published in both The Tennessean and Nashville Banner in October of 1956, a time when the city’s two daily newspapers steered public discourse.
The essay, a joint product of Nashville and Davidson County’s planning commissions, described a “metropolitan problem,” and it framed the issue in stark terms. If the problem wasn’t solved, the area could “expect to be divided haplessly into a patchwork quilt of many small and ineffective governments and half governments.”
What we now call Nashville had two competing bodies back then: the city of Nashville, composed of the older interior part of the city, and Davidson County, which had a countywide span, including new neighborhoods dotting its periphery. Nashville had a mayor and city council; the county had a county judge and a Quarterly County Court.
But times had changed. And Mayor Ben West and County Judge Beverly Briley responded by co-endorsing a consolidated government. “A Plan of Metropolitan Government for Nashville and Davidson County,” complete with recommendations and objectives for a government-merger, was distributed in the papers for citizens to digest.
In the decade following World War II, the population of Davidson County’s suburban areas, places like Green Hills, Donelson and Madison, exploded. As residents fled the old city, Nashville’s tax base deteriorated. But the county was unable to provide basic services — sanitary sewers, roads, adequate police and fire protection, street lighting — to the growing suburbs. Meanwhile, the two governments duplicated many functions, creating a bureaucratic morass.
“The root of our metropolitan problem is found in the fact that during the past 25 years Metropolitan Nashville has outgrown both its city and county governments,” this 1956-era plan asserted.
The next six years would rewrite the future of governance in Nashville, with ripple effects far beyond politics.
By 1958, a new Metro Charter went before residents under both governments via a public referendum, but the plan failed in the county areas. Four years later, West no longer supported the consolidated government, yet on June 28, 1962, citizens in both jurisdictions approved the merger nonetheless. Its victory overcame disagreement between Briley and West, a bitter war between two papers — the Banner had evolved to oppose the merger, while The Tennessean supported it — and fierce opposition and rhetoric: Some labeled Metro supporters communists, likening consolidation to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
The politics of those four years are the stuff of legend in Nashville, and the story has a cast of characters who represent Metro’s “Founding Fathers,” figures who shaped the basic tenets of the local government we see today: a nonpartisan 40-member council often subservient to the mayor; an assortment of citizen-led boards and commissions; a sheriff’s office confined to jail-keeping, and a police department with arrest powers; and two different tax bases, the Urban and General Services districts.
Fifty years after the system’s creation, members of all political stripes universally applaud and even romanticize the decision to combine two fragmented governments into a unified Metro government. This much isn’t debatable: By crafting the first full-scale city-government consolidation in the nation’s history, Metro’s pioneers embarked on something uncharted. Several cities followed in Nashville’s footsteps, while others have studied Nashville’s formula but failed.
“There are so many cities in the country that have taken a look at one government in Nashville,” said John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean, who was an editor at the paper in 1962 when it actively endorsed the merger. “Some have tried it, a few have succeeded, but the political differences between the city leaders and the county leaders are often, as they were in Nashville, just so intensely at odds that it hasn’t worked in many places.
“The logic of efficiency and economy came together at exactly the same time,” he said. “And it just made rational sense.”
Seigenthaler is one of three co-chairs appointed by Mayor Karl Dean to help kick off a nine-month-long celebration and public education campaign this week to honor Metro’s 50th anniversary. Festivities start at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Vanderbilt First Amendment Center with a panel discussion led by Seigenthaler, 50 years to the date after the city voted for a new Metro Charter. That same day, a commemoration is set featuring all living Nashville mayors. Events continue through April 1, 2013, a half-century after Metro government’s official implementation.
Dean, who called Nashville the “role model” for consolidations of other governments, said he gets asked about Metro’s form of government “as much as anything” during visits with other mayors. Many have a “desire to have a similar system.” Only 14 city-county governments nationwide have actually made the switch, he said, adding that “folks have to be willing to give up political power” for consolidation to occur. That’s a tough thing to do.
“It’s important to celebrate and acknowledge the historical significance of what occurred in Nashville 50 years ago, because it’s been a huge part our city’s success and our prosperity,” Dean said.
“It involved a lot of political courage and thoughtfulness among the individuals who helped create the Metropolitan government,” he said. “They were certainly forward-thinking, and they took a step that was not easy.”
Talk of a city-county government dated back to 1915. But the idea didn’t really take off until John Lentz, director of the city’s public health department, spearheaded the consolidation of the county’s health services in the 1950s, according to Carole Bucy, a historian at Volunteer State University and Davidson County’s historian, who is one of the leading experts on Nashville’s government merger.
Vanderbilt University political scientists started to study consolidation in the 1950s, Bucy said, and the movement led to the publishing of the “Plan” of Metro in 1956, with a summarized version printed in the two papers. Consolidation required changing state law. Three years earlier the state General Assembly, pushed by Nashville’s delegation, had passed a statute allowing the city to appoint a Metro Charter commission and the public to vote on the document the panel created. The change needed the support of both the county and city.
“You had all these overlapping government agencies, and Nashville wanted to be a ‘progressive’ city,” longtime civil rights attorney George Barrett said of the movement.
Everything appeared to line up for passage of the newly drafted charter the commission presented to the public in 1958. A group called Citizens for Better Government had toured the city to tout the benefits of a consolidation. Briley, West and both newspapers supported it. But in a public referendum, the charter passed in Nashville, but lost among suburban Davidson County voters.
“The joke was they couldn’t agree on the time of day,” Jay West, son of Mayor West and a former Metro vice mayor and councilman, said of the two newspapers. “And then all of a sudden they both came out and editorialized that this was a good idea. People thought, ‘Gosh, if they agreed to that, that means something’s wrong with it,’ and they turned it down.”
The defeat prompted an immediate shift for his father, who launched an aggressive annexation program, also enabled by state law, which began with the appropriation of seven square miles of commercial county property, according to Bucy. The idea was to accumulate land to generate more revenue for what had become a deteriorating city tax base. After all, Bucy said, “Ben West assumed consolidation was dead.”
Annexation could achieve the same goal.
Then in 1959 the Nashville city council approved what longtime Nashvillians still remember as “Ten for Ben.” Recognizing the growth beyond the city limits, West launched, and the council approved, a green-sticker tax to grow revenue. The policy required county residents to pay $10 a year to acquire a sticker they had to place on their automobiles if they drove to Nashville 30 times or more per year. Its logic: County citizens were using city services — parks, libraries and streets, for example — but not paying city taxes. Here was a means toward taxation.
Surprising many, Nashville police weren’t hesitant to enforce the tax. “Not only did they stop violators, and give them the ticket, but in many instances, they were arrested, taken downtown and booked,” Bucy said. “That really infuriated the people living out there in the suburbs.” Meanwhile, West’s annexation program rolled on, as Nashville accumulated 42 square acres of residential land, including affluent areas such as Green Hills, Hillwood and West Meade. Suddenly under Nashville’s government, these residents were forced to pay higher taxes, yet they still didn’t receive essential city services. They weren’t pleased.
Seigenthaler recalls a contentious time: “There was hostility for people who lived inside the old city, because they had the services. There was hostility for people in the immediately annexed area, because they didn’t have the services and they still had to pay for them. Then there was hostility outside, fearing they might be [annexed] next.”
Residents pushed for a second referendum. By 1961, Davidson County’s state legislative delegation paved the way for another charter commission, a 10-member body that included eight members from the previous panel. “They recognized the first charter wasn’t a very politically astute document,” Bucy said.
Thus, charter commissioners engineered changes. Most notably, the second charter included increasing the size of the new Metro Council from 21 members to 40 — 35 district and five at-large. That number was a step closer to the 55 members who sat on the county’s Quarterly County Court, thus opening future Metro Council seats to more members serving on the existing legislative bodies.
“It was a rather bitterly fought campaign,” Seigenthaler recalled of the months leading up the public referendum on June 28, 1962. “Very divisive in the community.”
The Tennessean ran editorials and cartoons pressing for consolidation, and the Banner countered with its own. The latter was aligned with West, who was no longer interested in a merger when annexing property could accomplish the same goal. The Tennessean supported Briley. Debates were held across the city, and the public turned out.
“We were better organized,” attorney George Cate Jr. said, comparing the second referendum to the first. Cate, who later became Metro’s first vice mayor, chaired the pro-merger group Citizens for Better Government by 1962. Cate said women — some 1,500 were organized — played an integral role in gathering support for a consolidated government and getting out the vote.
Advocates well-versed in the proposed charter conducted radio interviews and discussed the issue before church groups, neighborhood organizations and civic clubs. Cate’s group identified weaknesses from the first go-around and “gaps that needed to be filled.” They also hired two full-time staffers. “We were campaigning for it from the word, ‘Go,’ ” he said.
Opponents of Metro weren’t as organized, he said. Their message was fairly clear. “They felt like it was a power grab,” Cate said. “They suggested people in the outer parts of the county’s taxes would go up in a huge fashion.”
In the end, unlike in the first referendum, voters in both the city and county approved the Metro Charter. In all, 56 percent of citizens voted for consolidation. Metro was formed. Elections, catapulting Briley and a new Metro Council, were held in November 1962, and the government initiated the next April.
“They were resisting annexation,” Cate said of county residents’ swing. He remembered the Donelson’s transformation specifically. “The first time they had voted 2-to-1 against the charter. The second time they voted 2-to-1 in favor of it, feeling that it was a better choice for them than annexation.”
While Briley emerged as the father of Metro, of sorts, serving as Metro mayor from 1963 to 1975, most believe the consolidation of Metro wouldn’t have happened were it not for West. He indirectly helped spur the merger he opposed. “The annexation and the green sticker angered voters who had voted against the charter [four years before],” Bucy said.
“He just didn’t think it was time for it to happen, but obviously the voters disagreed with that, and they thought it was time to happen,” Jay West said of his father.
Events seemed to converge perfectly for Nashville: The turmoil of the civil rights movement was poised to escalate and it’s debatable whether the suburban, predominantly white county would have agreed to merge with the urban city later in the decade.
“There was a small window of time in which it could happen, and Nashville stepped up to the plate and did it,” Bucy said of consolidation.
The 10 Nashvillians who made up the second Metro charter commission were seven white men, two African-American men and one white woman. Appointments were split evenly between Briley and West. The commission was a decidedly young bunch. Most were in their 30s or early 40s.
Only two of the people who drafted Metro’s existing charter are alive today: attorneys Cecil Branstetter and Charles Warfield.
Warfield, who still works out of an office at Stites & Harbison four days a week in downtown Nashville, was a Briley appointment in 1961. In an interview with The City Paper, he recalled debating West at the former West End High School as part of a series of citywide forums on the topic of consolidation. Despite their opposing viewpoints, he called West a friend.
“There was no model to follow on that question,” Warfield said of drafting the charter. He and the nine others met at regular intervals to essentially put the vision of a government on paper. The commission’s chair, Carmack Cochran, guided the drafting process. The central “theme,” Warfield said, was to eliminate duplicative offices: the planning department, for example. All commission meetings were open to the public.
“We would vote,” Warfield said. “We would have a matter come up on the school board membership and how it was to be constituted. And we would have a vote, and sometimes the vote was pretty close.” That school board issue — whether it would be a mayor-appointed or elected board — happened to be one of the commission’s most contentious issues, he said. Ultimately, they opted for an elected board.
On the size of the Metro Council, Warfield said the debate was between those who favored a “more efficient” small council and those who “wanted to be able to know their council member to get the pothole in front of their house fixed.” The selection of a larger 40-member council boiled down to greater public support for that model, he said. “You can’t bring a new institution of local government in and ignore the electorate.”
Looking back, Warfield said he didn’t have any regrets about how Metro was structured in the charter. “I’m sure we could have done some things better. It’s not a perfect document. But having lived as a citizen and a lawyer in it for all these years, it has functioned well for Nashville.”
For Nashville’s African-American community (it was still the segregated South), consolidation — and annexation prior to it — “diluted” black representation in elected office, according to Seigenthaler. In other words, when Nashville accumulated predominantly white suburbs, blacks paid a political price. Fifty years later, Nashville has never elected a black mayor, with former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry coming closest in 2007.
Some historians, in fact, have called the city-county merger a “counter-revolution” to the progress of the civil rights.
But such an interpretation is retrospective. At the time, the idea of Metro had general support among the black community, largely because the commission included Z. Alexander Looby, a prominent African-American attorney. “There was never an issue of race raised over the course of that campaign. ... ” Seigenthaler said, pointing to the important role Looby played.
Warfield credited Looby with ensuring “fair representation” for blacks on the new Metro Council. The city council had six black members, he said, and Looby sought to make sure the new council would reflect that.
State Sen. Thelma Harper, a young mother living in North Nashville at the time, said the primary concern among blacks then was “what was going to happen to our children.” Busing, following the landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision, had slowly begun, though full integration was years down the road. “Were we just busing black kids out of their community, or was it both?” Harper said of a consolidated government and the question it presented with busing.
Harper, a former Metro councilwoman, said blacks, for the most part, supported Metro, but “many of them just didn’t know what was going on.”
Over its lifespan, the Metro Charter — not unlike the U.S. Constitution — has evolved.
According to Metro records, the charter has seen 57 amendments. Some changes, such as the decision to initiate council term limits, have had enormous impact, while other amendments are long forgotten. There have been 30-plus failed attempts at amending the charter. Perhaps the most memorable of these — rejected in larger numbers than expected — was former Councilman Eric Crafton’s attempt to make English the official language of Metro.
“We purposely set it up so that the charter could be amended,” Warfield said. “You certainly want to be able to amend something. But like the federal Constitution, you don’t want it to be made so easy that it can be changed every day and have no stability in local government.”
The counterpoint to Nashville’s city-county government merger, in many ways, is just down Interstate 40: Memphis, which still subscribes to separate city and Shelby County government. The race element there can’t be ignored. In 2010, consolidation went before Memphians in a public referendum. The city voted to approve the referendum by a narrow 51 percent. But in the more affluent white suburbs, 85 percent of the county rejected the merger. Today, Memphis is in the midst of a contentious struggle as its school system transitions to a merged model.
For Nashville, its consolidation seemed to trigger its ascendance as a modern Southern city — a progressive city, in many respects. Seigenthaler said it would be “hard to imagine” Nashville opening its doors to professional sports, the Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans, had it not been for its consolidation a half-century before. Sure, Nashville would always be “Music City,” he continued, but “there’s something to be said” about the fact that the Grand Ole Opry is situated in what was once beyond city limits.
“I don’t know that a city has a soul, but if Nashville’s got one, it’s got one because ‘one government’ helped make it what it is,” Seigenthaler said.