City Council Consolidation?

Ryan Higgins

When the city of Nashville was merged with the rest of Davidson County in 1965, many small neighborhoods feared losing representation on the new Metro Council.  Racial minorities were also concerned that a new council would be too White.  For these reasons, a compromise was made that created Nashville’s Metro Council with 35 districts, each with a council member, and five at-large members who would represent the entirety of Davidson County [1].  This is how the Metro Council has functioned for the past 50 years, with each council growing increasingly diverse, reflecting Nashville’s growing diversity.  The lasting compromise has easily seemed to have fulfilled the goals of its founders, but has become a burden in conducting municipal business and should be reconsidered in favor of a more efficient, consolidated council.

 Forty members make for an extremely large city council, however.  To put it in perspective, there are only two cities in the United States with larger city councils: New York City, with 51 council members and a population around 8.2 million, and Chicago, with 50 aldermen and 2.7 million people [2].  This equates to each council member representing nearly 161,000 people in New York and each alderman representing 54,000 in Chicago, to Nashville’s representing only 15,600 citizens [1].  Granted, unlike other metropolitan cities – like Los Angeles – Nashville’s council members only work part-time and must maintain other employment to support themselves, as they earn only $15,000 annually.  Still, other cities make smaller councils work and represent more citizens.

Last week, Councilwoman Emily Evans, from District 23 (Belle Meade), introduced a bill to study the current Metro Council, examining not only its size, but also salaries, benefits, the effect of term limits, and other factors related to its effectiveness.  The extent to which this is a blanketed attempt to decrease the size of the city council is debatable, but the debate itself is not new to Nashville.  In fact, in 2005, then-Mayor Purcell introduced plans to reduce the total number of council members to 21: 20 districts and one at-large representative.  This number came from the original size of the city council, pre-consolidation with the rest of Davidson County [1].  This initiative, however logical, failed under fear that a smaller council would limit citizen access to their council member, among other factors.

There are strong arguments for and against a reduced Metro Council.  Many Nashvillians have become accustomed to having a personal relationship with their council member and seeing them out in the community [3].  Fewer members would mean that their time was spread more thinly, thus limiting access.  However, as Nashville is a mayor-strong city (from its city charter design), the volume of council members makes each significantly less powerful and less able to combat the views of the mayor.  A smaller council would make each individual member more powerful and better able to balance the strong power of the mayor.

Ultimately, Nashvillians have been spoiled with the personal attention paid to them by their council members.  A city council should be able to focus on larger, citywide issues, but the current system bogs members down in extremely local problems.  A smaller and more professional city council would enable the citizens to have a stronger voice in the legislative process and would be a better use of resources.  While the results of Evans’s study remain to be seen, it is clear that Nashville would be better off with a reduced Metro Council.  Enacting this, however, would require some council members to forfeit their seats in the consolidation of districts.  That, however, is unlikely.  Nashville will probably remain with its overly large Metro Council for years to come until politicians are able to put aside their egos and political careers for the best of the city.






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