It’s the referendum that never was, but still could be.
When Davidson County voters head to the polls for the upcoming Metro elections, they’ll decide whether to preserve the rundown state fairgrounds property that became an unexpected political battleground last year.
Under a scenario that never quite materialized, but was very much discussed, voters would have had the chance to weigh in on another controversial matter ” whether to reshape the composition of the Metro Council.
The same organizers who spearheaded the effort to save the fairgrounds considered pushing a ballot measure to eliminate the five at-large Metro Council seats.
In the end, saving the fairgrounds was viewed as the more important effort and fundraising for a second ballot measure never came together.
“Ultimately it was not something I was interested in,” said Councilman Jamie Hollin, who is leading the effort to preserve the fairgrounds.
But Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans said the proposal could end up on a Davidson County ballot in the near future.
“I think it still could happen,” said Evans, who is a district council member representing the Belle Meade area. “The only way it’s ever going to happen is if it is through a petition effort. It’s never going to happen through Metro Council putting it on the ballot.”
Fairgrounds supporters became disillusioned last year with the cumbersome council legislative structure, especially when they felt a majority of council members were ignoring their views. Davidson County’s 40-member legislative body, plus the vice mayor, is one of the largest in the country.
Trimming down the council is not a new idea. Former Mayor Bill Purcell favored a pared down version of council when he was in office.
Others say the at-large members serve a valuable role because they represent the entire county instead of a smaller neighborhood like a district member.
“By definition, the district council members are supposed to be parochial and represent the views of their individual district,” said at-large Councilman Ronnie Steine, who formerly served as vice mayor. “The balance is there for the five of us who are campaigning and meeting people from one end of the county to the other, to sit with the 35 folks that represent individual districts.
“Mayor (Richard) Fulton used to say, ‘if you can’t get 21 of 40 people to agree to something, it’s probably not worth doing.’”
The measure on the upcoming ballot will allow voters to decide whether to keep the fairgrounds property functioning as it does now. Besides the annual state fair, the property hosts auto racing, a flea market and other expo center events. The proposed charter amendment would still allow for the property to be redeveloped, but only with a super-majority of 27 out of 40 council members.
Mayor Karl Dean believes the property is underperforming and should be redeveloped. Preservationists believe the property serves as an affordable entertainment option and is an important piece of Nashville history.