How many districts will Nashville's new council have? Public hearing set for April
A new state law requires Nashville to slash its 40-member council in half. The number of district seats on the new, smaller council is up to current council members, who voted Wednesday to postpone their decision until April to gather public feedback.
Multiple council members said they did not feel comfortable choosing the structure of the new council without having some idea of what Metro Nashville residents might want.
"By far the most consequential thing we're going to do (as Nashville representatives) is decide how many districts we have and how many at-large seats we have," Council member Dave Rosenberg said. "And for us to do it on an expedited timeframe like this where we have no idea what we want … (or) what the public wants because there's been no community public engagement … would just be incredible legislative malpractice."
Council members voted 36-1 to hold a public hearing on the number of districts a smaller council should have on April 4. They also voted 29-8 to put off their consideration of the issue until that April 4 meeting.
The council and Metro's Planning Department are on a tight timeline — the state law requires Nashville planners to submit a new district map to Metro Council by April 10, with or without recommendations from the council. The council's decision Wednesday means the planning department will have to decide for themselves how many districts to draw based on planning staff analysis of past elections, Nashville census demographics and data collected during the last post-census redistricting process in 2021.
Metro's legal team filed a lawsuit against the state contending that the new law is unconstitutional. The redistricting timeline could change if a three-judge panel grants Metro an injunction that would suspend implementation of the new law. A video conference hearing on Metro's injunction request is scheduled for 9 a.m. April 4.
Metro Planning Director Lucy Kempf said Wednesday that the planning department will move forward with the redistricting process and public engagement, but will stop immediately if a court rules they should cease their activity.
The resolution offered Wednesday by Council member Courtney Johnston would have asked the planning department to draw a map with 17 district council seats and three at-large seats. Other council members submitted several amendments requesting other map configurations, including:
15 district seats, five at-large seats
20 district seats and zero at-large seats
16 district seats and four "super district" seats, each of which would represent approximately one quarter of the county
16 district seats and four at-large seats
Two maps for comparison: one for the 15-5 configuration, and one for the 17-3 configuration
Another amendment requested the planning department draw multiple maps for consideration, something department officials say would considerably muddy an already expedited public engagement process.
Over the course of three meetings in the last week, Kempf and Metro Planning Manager Greg Claxton reiterated that the planning department would prefer the council to provide input on what number of districts to draw.
Metro Law Director Wally Dietz said the state statute does not require Metro Council to provide any recommendations to the planning department before a new map or maps are submitted for the council's consideration. In his view, he said, this deferral is not an act of bad faith on the council's part in terms of adhering to the law.
"If this body lands on a deferral and I don't have anything else, then I would anticipate releasing at minimum a map of 15 (council districts) and five (at-large seats) because … that has the broadest pathway to meeting all of the criteria that we need to meet (to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act)," Kempf said.
Local representation:How a smaller Nashville council would compare to others in Tennessee
Any of the district sizes presented can support continued proportional representation of the Black residents that make up about a quarter of Nashville's population, Claxton said. But the 15 district seat, five at-large seat configuration appears to present more chances for adequate minority representation, because at-large seats support access to representation for minority communities that may be too geographically dispersed to be drawn into a majority minority district, according to planning staff analysis.
Kempf and Claxton said the department plans to produce at least one map for consideration by Saturday. Any maps produced will be available at redistrict.nashville.gov, which will feature interactive tools for public feedback. The department will also hold open house sessions:
March 27 at Hadley Park Community Center, 1037 28th Ave. N from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
March 28 at the Sonny West Conference Center, 700 2nd Ave. S from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
March 28 at the Planning Department office, 800 2nd Ave. S from 1:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
March 29 at the Southeast Community Center, 5260 Hickory Hollow Parkway from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
March 30 at the Madison Library, 610 Gallatin Pike S from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Council members will have the opportunity in May to approve a new district map or reject it and go back to the drawing board.
Metro's charter, a governing document adopted by voter referendum in 1962, states Nashville's council shall have 35 district council members and five at-large council members. The new law gives the current council authority to pass any resolutions necessary to come into compliance with the law.
If a new map with 20 or fewer districts is not approved by May 1 — the qualifying deadline for Nashville's upcoming local election is May 18 — the law requires the current council members to serve an additional year, with a smaller council being elected in 2024.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: A smaller Nashville Council? Public hearing set to determine districts