CLARKSVILLE, TN (NOW CLARKSVILLE) — New legislation before City Council could trigger a referendum to reorganize the city of Clarksville under a “self-government” charter, and council members have questions. Questions such as, what is a self-governance charter?
The ordinance sponsored by council member Trisha Butler would add a referendum to the November ballot asking citizens if they would like Clarksville to have a self-government charter, something she has often expressed interest in.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve been shouting this from my seat for the last year,” Butler said during Thursday’s meeting.
What are “house rules”?
In Tennessee, home rule allows a city to change its own charter — essentially the city’s constitution — by referendum. If Butler’s amendment is successful, home rule would be added to the November ballot.
Basically, under the Home Rule, citizens vote directly on charter amendments every two years. A common model involves the formation of a committee to draft amendments, which are then added to the ballot.
Clarksville currently has a “private deed” charter, which requires approval from the state legislature to change. A home rule charter would remove state government from the equation, returning the affairs of the city to the citizens.
“Essentially, we can change our charter at the city level after allowing Clarksville residents to vote on amendments to our charter,” Butler said at the meeting. “It basically says we can make the best decisions for Clarksville rather than the state legislature, specifically that people should get more of a voice in what we do here.
Local self-government also allows citizens to add amendments via a petition.
According to Butler, 17 cities in Tennessee have self-government charters, including Knoxville, Chattanooga and Memphis.
“Too Big to Be Wrong”
Several council members have expressed concerns about a referendum on the domestic regime.
Brian Zacharias told fellow council members he fears a self-governance charter could lead to politicizing the city charter by subjecting it to the campaign process, which is often dictated by the party that spends more that the other.
Furthermore, he suggested that the domestic regime is a complicated issue and voters may not have enough time to make an informed decision by November.
“I think the simplicity of the question, ‘Should Clarksville adopt home rule?’ belies the seriousness of the consequences of this decision. How many voters understand what this question really asks? How many people in this room understand what this question really asks?
“Before we put this on the ballot, I think the city owes some information to its residents,” Zacharias said. “It’s too big to be wrong. We need the highest turnout possible, and we need those voters to fully understand what they’re being asked to consider.
Councilwoman Stacey Streetman voiced her opposition to a Home Rule referendum, suggesting that the city’s current structure is working and doesn’t need fixing.
“Our government has worked efficiently and effectively since our incorporation. We’ve been a private deed charter for a long time,” Streetman said.
Vondell Richmond, Wanda Smith, Karen Reynolds and Joe Shakeenab expressed similar concerns, citing the need for more information.
“A lot of things are catastrophic”
Butler responded by suggesting that these concerns underestimate the average voter, and that while three months is enough time to decide which candidate to vote for, that’s enough time to learn more about autonomy.
“I’m really disappointed with the amount of mistrust I’m hearing for the voter, for the citizen. … The fact that things are getting politicized should not overwhelm the voice of the people,” Butler said.
Butler called some concerns “catastrophic,” but said she could see the benefit of postponing a referendum until the next presidential election, which still sees the highest turnout in Montgomery County, and that would be in November 2024.
Wallace Redd and Ambar Marquis joined Butler in expressing support for a self-government referendum.
City Council will vote at its meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. If passed, the measure will require a second vote at the next meeting currently scheduled for July 7.
Correction: A previous version of this article should have stated that the ordinance sponsored by council member Trisha Butler would add a referendum to the November ballot.