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Mayors talk of metro government
Jan 16, 2006 12:00 am
January 14, 2006
Talk of establishing a metropolitan government in Wilson County gained tangible momentum Friday, picking up a strong endorsement from Lebanon Mayor Don Fox and generating interest on the part of Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman.
Discussions between Fox and Dedman on the topic, which has appeared periodically in recent years, resurfaced earlier this week in light of a recent spat between Lebanon and Mt. Juliet regarding the use of a police firing range (See related story).
'He (Dedman) and I talked … and I think that this (firing range) is kind of the straw that broke the camel's back, but we need to go with the metro form of government for Wilson County," Fox said Friday.
Dedman confirmed he had spoken with Fox about the long and complicated process needed to establish a metropolitan government, noting he was 'all for it" if such a move would help save the county money.
'Mayor Fox asked my opinion about it, and I said, 'Well, it's always good to look into things like that. If it can save the taxpayers of the county some money by consolidation, I'll be all for it if we can do that,'" Dedman said, adding he felt the issue should be closely studied with assistance from state officials.
And while the two said a feasibility study on metropolitan government could be just around the corner, Mt. Juliet Mayor Linda Elam said the apparent alliance between Fox and Dedman had broadened the divide between municipal and county governments.
Lebanon and Mt. Juliet have recently butted heads on a pair of issues — Mt. Juliet's use of Lebanon's animal control facility, and the Lebanon Police Department's use of Mt. Juliet's police firing range. Wilson County, too, has seen a long-running debate over county-funded fire protection inside Mt. Juliet's corporate limits reignited.
Currently, county lawmakers are reviewing a 19-year-old fire protection agreement between Mt. Juliet and the county and plan to take up the issue in the coming weeks.
'It is ironic that the two officeholders most responsible for unraveling the joint cooperative efforts that exist between Mt. Juliet, Lebanon and Wilson County are now scrambling to appear cooperative by suggesting a metro government," Elam said. 'I suggest they try to walk before they try to run.
'All citizens of Wilson County would be better served by having their elected representatives actually working together in a positive manner before trying to consolidate all governments. I'm happy to discuss any issue if these gentlemen are interested in true partnerships rather than sound bytes," she concluded.
Paths to Consolidation
State statute provides four methods for city and county governments to consolidate services and form a single metropolitan governing body.
Two of the four processes begin with resolutions for consolidation approved by majority vote of the governing body of both the county and primary city — in this case, Lebanon, Fox claimed.
The next step is creating a charter commission — a body established to propose a charter for the new metropolitan government.
In the method leaders are considering, Tennessee Code Annotated states the charter commission would be comprised of 10 members selected by the county mayor and five picked by the city mayor. Members should be a broad representation of the county including any smaller municipalities, state law notes.
'What we've decided to do is we're going to establish a study group," Fox said. 'For that study group, I will pick five — using that same formula — and Dedman will pick 10."
Fox explained the study group will conduct a feasibility study to determine the 'practicality" of metropolitan government in Wilson County.
And though he noted he would first like to seek the guidance of state officials, Dedman said he would strive to ensure the 10 members he selects represent a broad spectrum of county residents.
'I don't want there to be any politics in it," Dedman said. 'I just want it to be the average John Doe out here on the street, a farmer or something like that. It might be something to look at. Like I said, if it can save taxpayers money and be fair, I'd be all for it."
Another scenario establishes a charter commission consisting of six members appointed by the county mayor, six by the board of commissioners and eight by the mayor of the principal city.
After a committee has been established, smaller cities within the county may 'by action of its legislative body appoint a representative to consult with the charter commission," state law says.
The third method requires legislative action to set up a charter commission.
'Just like any issue, a private act could be approved by the (state) Legislature and a two-thirds vote of governing body (to set up a charter commission)," Wilson County Administrator of Elections Lynn Harris said.
A final option Fox wants to incorporate in current talks includes a petition signed by voters requesting a referendum on the issue.
State law prescribes that a petition must be 'signed by qualified voters of the county, equal to at least 10 percent of the votes cast in the county" in the last gubernatorial election.
In November 2002, 30,777 people voted in the governor's race in Wilson County, Harris said.
'That means they would have to get 3,078 quality signatures," she said.
In a petition-driven consolidation, the charter commission would consist of 10 selected by the county mayor and five by the mayor of the principal city.
'If the referendum to approve consolidation fails, another commission may not be created by petition for three years," the law states.
In each of the scenarios excluding the Legislative process, a provision exists to have a referendum to select members of the charter committee if governing bodies can't agree, Harris said.
'It comes up every so often and people think it sounds so easy," she said. 'But it's not really an easy thing to do."
Pitfalls and hurdles
As Harris suggested, the path to metropolitan government in Wilson County would be riddled with obstacles.
Unlike many Tennessee counties, Wilson is unique because there are two school systems — the county system and Lebanon Special School District. Establishing a metropolitan government would require combining the two systems, which could prove to be a costly endeavor.
In fact, state law indicates school consolidation could be the primary hurdle faced by local lawmakers. As LSSD teachers' salaries could not legally be reduced to the level of county educators, pay for teachers in the county school system would have to be increased to the level of those in the city's school district, a source familiar with the process said Friday.
Another potential issue, Fox noted, is closely tied to the nature of consolidation. If the charter commission does not represent a fair cross-section of county residents, Fox said the move toward metropolitan government would be destined to fail.
'You just have to hope that … they will be a pretty good spread across the county," Fox said. 'And, I think there would be."
Watertown Mayor Mike Jennings could not be reached for comment regarding his city's likely response to the issue, but Elam said it was far too soon to begin planning Mt. Juliet's response to any metropolitan government proposal.
'It's way too early to even contemplate such a decision," she said.
Staff Writer Brian Harville can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 16 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Features Editor Sherry Phillips can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 44 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org