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VOL. 132 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 6, 2017

Micromanaging Nashville is Job 1 for Legislature

By Sam Stockard

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Metro Nashville is used to getting hammered by the Legislature’s Republicans.

Nearly every time the Metro Council tries to come up with a solution to growing problems, conservatives in the General Assembly swoop in and save the rest of the state from Music City’s attempts to better handle its success.

Never mind the fact Nashville is the “it city,” one of the nation’s biggest tourist destinations and home of high-rise cranes, the Predators and the Titans.

Remember when Metro wanted to do something about affordable housing by asking the development community to put less expensive homes into their plans? The Legislature balked.

Remember when Metro wanted to require more local jobs in construction projects funded by Nashvillians? The Legislature fought it.

Remember when Metro, and Memphis, sought to have police officers write citations for possession of small amounts of pot? The Legislature slammed it.

Remember when Metro considered putting more restrictions on short-term rental businesses? The Legislature tried to kill it.

Remember when Metro Council almost passed measures stopping Davidson County personnel from acting like Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers? Republican legislators nearly came out of their skins at the idea of Nashville becoming a sanctuary city.

You don’t have to work too hard to jog your memory, because these took place in the last three years and in the last three weeks.

All of this stuff leaves Nashville Democratic Rep. Bill Beck shaking his head.

“I’m really not sure what the end game is, or if there is an end game, for the Legislature when it’s concerning Davidson County. But everything has been micromanaging our county. And it really bewilders me because if we tried to micromanage Hamilton County or Knox County it would be in an uproar,” Beck said, shortly before the end of session.

“But all of a sudden it becomes posh to micromanage Davidson County, even though we’re generating one of every three tax dollars from sales tax in the state. We’re the engine driving all of Middle Tennessee’s economy. Yet apparently, they think we’re doing something wrong or being over-regulating.

“I’m not sure what is driving their fear or their need to control our county.”

Mayor Megan Barry has been helpful, Beck says, building relationships with legislators outside the Davidson County delegation. Likewise, House Speaker Beth Harwell, the only House Republican from Davidson, has stood with the Democratic group, he notes.

The immigration fiasco

Yet, when it came to the most recent fiasco surrounding immigration legislation, Barry and Harwell took a stance opposite the Metro Council.

Barry asked the council to reconsider whether the measure is “appropriate or necessary” after Law Director John Cooper issued an opinion saying it would not be legally binding on the sheriff to change procedures related to immigration. And Harwell led the initial charge against the ordinance, seeking a state attorney general’s opinion on it.

Harwell confirms she spoke to Barry on the phone the day Metro Councilmen Bob Mendes and Colby Sledge decided to withdraw their ordinances.

“I just reached out to the mayor because I know this is a difficult time for our city right now,” Harwell says. “We just had a good discussion of the relationship with the state and local government, and I think she’s made the right call by asking the city council to back away from this. And I had already reached out to the sheriff, as well.”

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall opposed the legislation because it would overstep his authority and says he won’t stop cooperating with the feds. He specified that his personnel don’t check the immigration status of inmates on the front end.

In such cases, if ICE agents get a match on fingerprints put into a national system, they send a request for a detainer, and in the last three months those have been accompanied by a warrant, Hall says.

Harwell hoped the council members would “handle” the matter by withdrawing, which they did.

She said the ordinance was unenforceable and unconstitutional because the Metro Council doesn’t have authority over the sheriff, but preferred to wait on the AG’s opinion before saying the Legislature would act in 2018.

“We really need our local, state and federal officers to work together,” Harwell says. “Law enforcement really needs to work together, all three branches. This is the wrong message.”

And though Harwell says she hadn’t spoken with House Republican Caucus members, she points out they were clearly concerned about the ordinances.

“We don’t want a sanctuary city in the state of Tennessee. And it’s not just a local issue because it impacts the entire state,” she explains.

Sixty House Republicans sent out a combined statement urging Tennesseans to call Metro Council in opposition to the ordinances, one of which would have ended a 21-year agreement with the U.S. Marshal’s Service to detain prisoners for ICE. Thirteen more lawmakers in the Senate voiced their opposition in a separate letter.

Spearheaded by Rep. Judd Matheny of Tullahoma, the large group of Republicans made a statement saying, “The threat of Nashville becoming a sanctuary city or even a de facto sanctuary city for illegal immigrants who commit criminal offenses mobilized grassroots organizations and numerous citizens to stand in the gap for the safety and security of all Tennesseans and legal residents of the state including immigrants and refugees.”

They contend Tennessee “has flourished under Republican leadership” and point out the 2009 law prohibiting establishment of a sanctuary city hasn’t stopped legal immigrants and refugees from bolstering the state.

Circumventing the law “leads one to the conclusion that the intent was not for the betterment of Tennesseans and legal residents, but one that enhanced criminal activity,” the letter states.

What the Dems say

Democrats didn’t issue any pronouncements about the Mendes-Sledge legislation, probably because it was too hard to back from a legal standpoint.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, notes he spends a good deal of his time in the Legislature defending the city. On this matter, though, he says he believes the right wing had an “easy target.”

“I’m proud it’s an inclusive and diverse city and progressive. But it’s no help to me and my legislative colleagues when the Metro Council takes aggressive steps in a direction that, while it may be the right direction and well-intentioned, it doesn’t help anybody if they do it without having all their legal ducks in a row, so to speak,” Clemmons adds.

Nashville Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro points out cities and states are left to work out immigration policy because the federal government has failed to take comprehensive action.

“To me, this immigration issue is one where we need a lot less heat and a lot more light,’’ he says. “There’s some complicated policy issues, legal issues involved, and I think in the best-case scenario the state and local government could start working together on addressing real problems.

“But in any event, I think everybody should avoid making this a mere subject of politics.”

The sponsors regroup

In light of President Donald Trump’s efforts to ratchet up immigration enforcement, or at least the perception of it, Sledge and Mendes say they were trying to calm the nerves of Nashville’s immigrant community and encourage them to get more involved, including helping curb crime by reporting incidents and working with police.

They say the sheriff is Davidson County’s only department head to oppose the ordinance. On the other hand, according to Sledge, the Health Department is concerned about children missing immunizations and the school system is worried about parents skipping conferences.

Sledge adds he and Mendes, an attorney, did their homework before sponsoring the bill, including talking to Metro Council attorneys. They also included sections in the ordinance saying if it conflicted with state and federal law, it would not be enforced.

In addition, the District Attorney’s Office says there would be no problem with U-visas for immigrant victims of violence, he points out, though the mayor claims the Metro Police Department was concerned about the U-visa program.

Confusion from the outset leaves most regular folks wondering what went awry.

The outrage from House and Senate Republicans “wasn’t surprising,” though, Sledge points out.

“I would hope we would be able to have these conversations, both in Nashville and in the state, without resorting to the kind of, quite frankly, damaging rhetoric that some people used,” Sledge says.

“It speaks again to the problems we continue to have when Nashville tries to have even a conversation about issues that are important to its residents, and that the state feels they have the right to come in to those conversations regardless of what the topic is.”

Sledge and Mendes won’t come back with any immediate legislation. Instead, they’re talking with community members and Metro leaders to ensure immigrant residents “feel safe and can participate.”

At the same time, though, Sledge adds he’s “disappointed” that Mayor Barry didn’t want the Metro Council to keep the debate going.

“Because I think people in Nashville are asking for us to have that conversation. I think we have to continue this dialogue regardless of legislation, because it’s vital to the operation of our city,” he notes. “If people who live here aren’t participating in services like reporting crimes and getting immunizations, that affects all of us.”

The analysis

In light of the Metro Council’s rush to doom, the question is: Where does Nashville go from here?

No one, including Sledge and Mendes, wants to put dangerous criminals back on the street, but Nashville leaders don’t want the immigrant population to hide in the shadows, either.

Though Matheny and his folks would like to see immediate deportation of every illegal immigrant in Davidson County and Tennessee, that’s not realistic.

They are buoyed, however, by a recent decision by Attorney General Herb Slatery to join opposition to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program started under former President Barack Obama to help children brought illegally to America at an early age by their parents.

Slatery’s move deals a death blow to legislative efforts to allow these young people to pay in-state tuition to enroll in Tennessee colleges and universities.

It also provides a booster, along with the Metro Council immigration bills, for Republican lawmakers to pile up votes in the 2018 primary.

As legislative Democrats know all too well, poking Nashville in the eye is wildly popular in the State Capitol, and legislators in surrounding counties and rural areas can show how tough they are by standing up to the Capitol City.

Yarbro says the Legislature passed more bills than ever in 2017 to pre-empt the action of local governments.

“The notion of local control has turned into something more akin to control of locals,” he continues. “And I think we’ve got a lot of work to do as a General Assembly to figure out whether we have any principles when it comes to pre-emption or whether that’s just gonna be decided by a street fight on issue-by-issue cases.”

Republican legislators noted several times during debates this year that state law overrides local ordinances, and some have argued in recent years that the states created the federal government and, therefore, should be able to tell the feds what to do.

While that may be technically correct, then, apparently, the Civil War wasted hundreds of thousands of lives and U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education should be null and void.

On the matter of modern immigration policy, cooler heads need to prevail, and nothing seems to be emanating from the White House these days in the way of discretion. Instead, we’re left with a barrage of nonsensical Twitter rants.

This leaves Nashville to deal with a tough situation, one that needs exhaustive research, planning and political will. Otherwise, even as Nashville continues to boom over the next few years, it will remain the whipping boy for legislative Republicans.

As Rep. Beck says, “It is a geographical problem. Here we are on this island in the middle of Tennessee, and for some reason everybody wants to take our island from us.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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