Campaign To Shrink Metro Council May Really Be About Extending Term Limits

One of some 40,000 mailers that Councilwoman Emily Evans has sent to Nashville voters.

One of some 40,000 mailers that Councilwoman Emily Evans has sent to Nashville voters.

Councilwoman Emily Evans has begun a campaign pushing two ideas: to reduce the size of the Metro Council by a third, and to extend term limits by four years. But Evans’ personal motivation seems to be quite different than the messaging in the mailers some 40,000 voters have received.

“Nashville needs a more efficient Metro Council,” is how the mailers frame Evans’ pitch. It’s true that Nashville has more council members than nearly any other city in America. Only New York and Chicago surpass Nashville’s 40 members — a result of the 1963 city-county merger. But in order to get more done, the council needs to be leaner, she says.

“A council is a lot like a classroom,” Evans said. “If you have a classroom with 40 people versus a classroom with 27 people in it, your ability to communicate information consistently to a smaller group is much more enhanced than it is to a larger group.”

Other results of a smaller body could include: saving around $350,000 a year (council members make $15,000 a year); maybe having a greater weight to counter the mayor, though most major council votes overwhelmingly follow the mayor’s lead; and putting the size of Nashville’s city government in line with comparable cities.

This is the take-away from Evans’ tri-fold mailer. But when you talk to Evans, it quickly becomes evident that it’s not really what’s driving the push.

“It’s the term limit thing. The term-limit issue is disastrous,” Evans said.

Voters have three times been asked whether they want to extend council members’ term limits from the current 8-year cap, and they’ve always rejected changing it.

So why marry reducing the number of council members with the term-limit extension? Because Evans thinks, and her own polling shows, the majority of Nashville residents support a smaller council. By connecting the two, voters who accept the shrunken council will also be agreeing to letting their elected city representative stick around for an additional four years, which, history has shown, is far less popular.

Separating the question would probably yield a smaller council under the current term limits, and that’s “not an ideal outcome,” Evans said.

Again, the reasoning behind tying the two together: “Combined as an incentive for those who think term limits are awesome, but hate the size of the council,” Evans said. “For people who love the 40-member council, but hate the term limit.”

In other words, Evans is saying some voters will be forced to swallow an outcome they differ with in order to get one they endorse — in the political parlance, some might call this a “compromise.”

Next September, 60 percent of the council will be leaving office. When it comes to planning for Metro’s future in terms of education, transit, and infrastructure, things get accomplished more quickly with more senior members with deeper institutional knowledge, Evans contends.

Detractors, including At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine, argue a smaller council will decrease accessibility for citizens, increase the power of the mayor and will provide fewer viewpoints.

And though Evans vehemently rejects these counter-arguments, the fact that extending term limits is her driving force is hard to notice based on her campaign mailers. All the infographics and bold type speak to the leaner council argument. The extended term-limit pitch? It’s buried in small font on the third page under the header “Actual Amendment Language.”

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