For 20 years now, Metro voters have gone to the ballot knowing that no matter what, the bums will be thrown out soon enough.
Since passing a two-term limit for Metro Council members in 1994, Nashvillians have voted against extending the shelf life of the city's legislators three times (although voters did pass a 2008 charter amendment allowing district council members to run for one of five at-large seats).
Now it looks as if they'll have another opportunity to weigh in on the matter of how long council members occupy a desk at the Metro Courthouse — and maybe even how many.
Two potential charter amendments are in the works that would extend term limits. One would change the limit to three four-year terms. The other would extend the limit to four terms, while also shrinking the council to a yet-to-be determined number.
Council attorney Jon Cooper tells the Scene that legal work is still being done, and that neither of the potential amendments has been drafted yet. He says they will likely be ready for consideration by the council in April and, if passed with 27 votes, will appear on the August ballot.
Cooper says it's very early in the process, and council members interested in the issue say the particulars of the amendments — and the determination of which proposal should go before the voters — still need to be worked out.
At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard favors a three-term limit that would go into effect in 2019, so as to skip over sitting council members like himself.
"The idea being, the longer you serve, the more institutional memory and hopefully the knowledge you have to represent the council side, as opposed to the administration or some other viewpoint," he says.
As one of the council's senior members — he was first elected in 1989 — Tygard has often lamented the way that term limits can effectively limit the number of people in the room who know what's going on.
"When I started, just on the back row you had Charlie Fentress, Tandy Wilson, Carney Patterson," Tygard recalls. "They had served at that point three, four, five, six terms already. So I had 50-plus years of history back there, to ask questions to why are we doing this, what's the pro, what's the con. Now you look around the room, very few of us have been there longer than two years."
On the other hand, there's Congress — the term-limit-free wasteland where legislative lifers can ride the momentum of incumbency until they've become doddering monuments to themselves. Tygard says extending but maintaining term limits — and he says he could live with a three- or four-term limit — splits the difference.
Councilwoman Emily Evans shares Tygard's view about the negative effects of term limits, albeit in a more strongly worded form and with a slightly different prescription.
"I have said on the floor it's the single worst thing that's ever happened to the Metropolitan Government," Evans says.
Evans advocates an amendment that would create a four-term limit, and she wants it to go into effect immediately. Knowing how that sounds, she's quick to add one thing.
"Just to be clear, I am not running again," she says. "So I'm going to advocate this position with dead certainty that I am not running again. This has got nothing to do with me."
Most people, she says, are attracted to running for office because of a particular issue that has affected them or their neighborhood. Based on that or their professional background, they might have a certain level of expertise in one area, be it land use or fiscal matters.
"But nobody comes to the office knowing a lot about all aspects of the Metro Government," she says. "Yet you are called upon, when you serve, to know a lot about a lot of things that you may not be acquainted with."
After spending the better part of their first term learning their way around zoning regulations, budget items and the legislative process, Evans says many council members end up with an inadequate four years — their second term — to try to be an effective legislator.
Legislators need more time in office, Evans says, but the voters should get something too. That's why she says she'd prefer a charter amendment that extended term limits while also shrinking the now 40-member council.
"I think that's the trade-off," she says. "The public accepts that the people in office stay a little longer, but there's less of them."
Evans says extending term limits is so important that she would encourage the public to take up a petition drive if such an amendment failed in the council.
"I think it's important to neighborhoods who have complex zoning and land-use concerns," she says. "I think it's really important to the taxpayers who are concerned about budgets and spending. I think you need a little bit more than eight years worth of experience and knowledge to really fully understand and appreciate those issues and legislate accordingly.
"And I'm not running again," she adds. "Did I say that?"