(The Center Square) – The Davidson County Election Commission has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to decide whether Nashville residents will be allowed to vote on a proposed charter referendum to limit property tax rates, limit Metro Government’s ability to sell or transfer property and require public referendum on bonds exceeding $15 million.
The commission named 4 Good Government, the citizens group that submitted more than 20,000 signatures to petition for the referendum, as a defendant in the proceedings, along with the city of Nashville, Mayor John Cooper and Metro Finance Director Kevin Crumbo.
“It's set out in such a fashion that all of the parties involved have an opportunity to kind of weigh in,” Davidson County Elections Administrator Jeff Roberts told The Center Square. “The key was, who, who has an interest in the whole effort? The city. The finance department. The 4 Good Government group – they're the ones that authored the petition – so naturally you want those folks in there so that when it's before the judge, each one has an opportunity to explain their side.”
Filed in Davidson County Chancery Court on Friday morning, the request for declaratory judgement poses several questions a judge will decide. Questions center on whether there are flaws in the way the petition is written, whether the commission has discretion to change or delete portions of the five-section petition and whether the commission must place the petition on a special election ballot if the petition is flawed. The commission claims, as written, the petition would create discrepancies within the Metro Charter, violating the state Constitution.
“The Davidson County Election Commission must get this complex issue right for the taxpayers and for our city,” Election Commission Chairperson Emily Reynolds said in a statement. “That’s why we have asked the court for clarity on the commission’s role and responsibilities before we commit taxpayer dollars for a referendum election. Spending $800,000 on an election only to have it challenged in court would not benefit the supporters or opponents of the referendum.”
Attorneys for the Election Commission include former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch Jr. and Junaid Odubeko of the Bradley firm. Roberts said the commission is compensating Koch about $400 an hour and both attorneys agreed to serve “as a public service.” Koch and Odubeko will submit conflict-of-interest disclosures, and Roberts said the commission expects them shortly.
“Our focus was to get the declaratory judgement out there as soon as we can,” Roberts said.
The 4 Good Government group filed a request Thursday on behalf of the 27,263 petitioners, asking the court to expedite its decision, citing the Election Commission’s “intentional, willful and purposeful refusal to place a duly-qualified petition to amend the Metro Charter.”
“Plaintiffs seek an expedited hearing on this matter as time is of the essence in placing a duly-qualified citizen-sponsored ballot initiative on the December 5, 2020 ballot,” the 4 Good Government complaint reads.
If an election is to be held in December, a decision must be made soon. According to the Election Commission’s complaint, preparations for a Dec. 15 election would need to begin no later than Nov. 4, and absentee ballots mailed by Nov. 14, 2020, should the judge rule that an election is appropriate.
The Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act proposal repeals the tax increase and limits future property tax increases to 2% per year, unless approved by a public referendum. It also restricts the city council’s ability to give away public land, requires a public referendum on building projects not enumerated in the Metro Charter, reverts facilities of professional sports teams to the people if teams leave Nashville and requires Metro records be open to the public.
Should a special referendum election occur and the charter amendment passes, the measure would put the Metro budget out of balance, necessitating approximately $332 million in mid-year budget cuts. Cooper has threatened to make dramatic cuts to essential city services such as the fire department, trash and recycling collection, and cutting the Metro Police Force by one-third. The mayor’s office has said an across-the-board budget cut is unlikely.