Jim Gotto's holding two elected seats raises some questions

Sunday, April 17, 2011 at 10:05pm
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By day, Jim Gotto walks the floor of the Tennessee State Capitol as a freshman Republican lawmaker who rode a wave of public disenchantment with the Democratic Party in November to help turn an already GOP-heavy House of Representatives more red. 

In the evening hours, around 6:30 p.m. every other Tuesday, Gotto can be found a few blocks away at the downtown Metro Courthouse, playing the role of a Donelson-Hermitage district council member, one of only a handful of conservative voices in a 40-person body that, while nonpartisan, leans left-of-center. 

“I’m extremely busy right now,” said Gotto, noting that he also sits on the nine-member Metro Planning Commission. “It’s more at the state. It’s pretty much Monday through Thursday. Of course, you’ve got council squirreled in there on the odd Tuesdays.”

Indeed, it’s a full plate of legislative duties for Gotto, a retired 61-year-old BellSouth engineer, Nashville native and Vanderbilt University graduate who is thoughtful, plainspoken and polite in conversation. If history were reversed, and Gotto hadn’t won his District 60 seat six months ago, his former Democratic rival Sam Coleman, also a Metro councilman, would be in the same position — holding titles in both the state and local legislative bodies. For Gotto, it’s only a short period of overlap: He is term-limited in the council this fall. 

Though his future is bound to Capitol Hill, Gotto seems to be enjoying his current position as a sort of liaison, demonstrating a willingness to use his state seat — and its supremacy — in an arguably paternalistic fashion to help fix the ills of the local government he simultaneously serves. 

Gotto unabashedly supports a state bill introduced by Williamson County Rep. Glen Casada aimed at nullifying Metro’s recently approved nondiscrimination ordinance, already signed into law by Mayor Karl Dean, which requires Metro contractors to provide employment protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers. And without notifying Metro officeholders beforehand, Gotto has engineered a state effort to move Metro’s election date to coincide with presidential elections beginning in 2016, an effort to mend the periodic challenge — like the current year — of hastily redrawing district council lines with fresh census data before Metro’s election. 

In straddling the line of state and local influence, Gotto has irked some of his council colleagues, incited others to claim conflicts of interests against him, and set off a broader debate about whether a person should be able to hold other elected offices while serving on the council. It all seems to have ushered in a rare period of partisan squabbling for a council that’s supposed to have no party affiliation. 

At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, a favorite among Nashville progressives, told The City Paper last week that if re-elected, she plans to introduce an amendment to Metro’s charter that would prevent Davidson County citizens from serving in both bodies, a move that would ostensibly mirror a recently approved policy in Mt. Juliet. Barry and others have already sponsored a memorializing resolution, signed by 30 council members, that would put the council on record as opposing Gotto’s election-date move. 

“I don’t want to make it personal because I don’t think it’s about the individual representative,” Barry said. “I think it’s about the overall ability to serve without a conflict. We specifically have a nonpartisan body by design and by charter because that’s what Davidson County wanted. We get elected to another office that is partisan, I think it poses a conflict, especially when you’re dealing with potential legislation that crosses into both areas.” 

Gotto’s use of the dual roles has reverberated outside the council chambers. Longtime Nashville attorney and Democratic supporter George Barrett, whose threat of a lawsuit against the city spurred the council’s expedited redistricting process, questioned Gotto’s support of state Republicans’ attempts to overturn Metro’s nondiscrimination bill now that it’s been signed into law. 

“Doesn’t he take an oath of a city council member to uphold the ordinances of the city?” Barrett said. “That ordinance has been signed by the mayor and passed by the council. Isn’t that [state bill] in conflict with that obligation?” 

Gotto turned to precedent to defend allegations of being conflicted — and he has a point. Throughout the 48-year history of Metro government, several council members have also served in the state legislature. They include Harold Love, current council members Tim Garrett and Edith Langster, as well as current legislators Brenda Gilmore, Thelma Harper, Sherry Jones, Gary Odom and Janis Sontany. They’re all Democrats. 

“Megan Barry needs to talk to the people within her own party,” Gotto said, alluding to the history of Democratic crossovers. “Because Tim Garrett did it, Brenda Gilmore did it, Gary Odom did it. The list goes on and on. So I guess it’s OK for them, but when a Republican does it, it’s not OK. I’m not surprised at all that she would say that.” 

Garrett, who for 15 years served concurrently as a state representative and councilman, said the only conflicts he ran into during that period were related to timing — and that only happened about three times. “A meeting might have run over a few times,” Garrett recalled. “There really wasn’t a problem, at least during those years.”

Conservative Councilman Robert Duvall said Gotto’s service in state and local politics is no different than what Gilmore did a few years ago. He also said Casada, not Gotto, is “carrying the water” on the state’s attempt to strip local municipalities of the right to enact nondiscrimination policies that affect the private sector. Duvall said he doesn’t see the need for Barry’s charter amendment. 

“I don’t see why it’s necessary,” Duvall said. “I don’t see where it’s hurt anyone in the past. And in fact, in some ways, it [empowers] our governing body maybe even more so because we have state representatives we can go to that can possibly help us with legislation that can help this city.” 

At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine is also unsure about banning one’s ability to serve simultaneously at the state and Metro. He stressed that Gotto is in a rare situation of holding both seats for only a handful of months. Still, Steine isn’t pleased with the way Gotto has attempted to shift Metro’s election cycle from August 2015 to November 2016. 

“I certainly think that his unilateral attempt to change our election laws in such a hurried fashion without any consultation with anyone on the local level, and not even trying to work within our council system to analyze the situation and to make recommendations, is very unusual for Jim,” Steine said. “I’ve never known him to not want to work with members of the council, and I frankly thought he had more respect for both the council and for local government in general.” 

Gotto’s endeavor to move Metro’s future election dates comes in the form of an amendment to a mundane caption bill. It’s slated to go back before the House state and local government committee this Tuesday; it was deferred last week. 

“I chose not to,” Gotto said when asked why he opted not to confer with other council members. “That’s the short answer. They don’t confer with me when they want to file legislation.” 

Gotto said he wants to end the headache that occurs every 20 years when Metro must rush the realignment of political boundaries in advance of an August election using updated census data released in the spring. The council approved newly redistricted lines last week. Besides eliminating the cost of an extra election, Gotto believes the changes would yield other results. 

“The real positive out of this is that if I am successful in coinciding them with federal elections, the voter participation in local elections in Davidson County is just going to multiply unbelievably,” Gotto said. “It’s dismal currently.”  

16 Comments on this post:

By: treehugger7 on 4/18/11 at 6:52

Anyone who doesn't see this as a conflict of interest is blind. How it has been going on for so long is inexpilcable. Since I moved here in the eighties, I have marveled at what is called governing in the state and the council. Nashville needs some serious revamping in city government. Term limiting has been some help. While I am in favor of all voices being heard, the ridiculously large council prevents it. I hate that channel 8 doesn't broadcast the meetings any more. That was some of the best comedy on TV.
Now, NPT is just an extension of PBS with little local information. I refuse to get comcast just so I can hear the council meetings. Does anyone know how to access the meetings in other ways? I'm not a tech person....

By: Moonglow1 on 4/18/11 at 7:01

Moonglow1: This is a clear conflict of interest. This practice needs to be changed. I really do not care what occurred in the past. Make the change now. Ms. Barry, keep pushing this issue. You are correct & Gotto is wrong. Get the lawyers involved to challenge this conflict of interest.

By: Nashville14 on 4/18/11 at 7:40

Nashville14: It's ridiculous to critize Jim Gotto for holding a Metro Council Seat and be a State Representative. It sounds like partisan politics as usual since several Democrats have done it in the past. He is a great voice in the Metro Council and a great voice in the state legislature. Let him do his job without all this controversial partisan jabbing at him because he's a Republican. Grow up and get closer to what you've been elected to do!!!!!!!!!!

By: may not on 4/18/11 at 9:02

Apropos of nothing, based on his demeanor in Council and the Planning Commission, I'm quite certain the characterization "polite in conversation" does not apply to Gotto. He is at best passive-aggressive; at worst a rude and intolerant individual. BTW, has he resigned his role on the Metro Planning Commission? Now, there's a conflict of interest for you!

By: Nitzche on 4/18/11 at 9:14

I just checked bankruptcy court, and sure enough, the democratic party filed a petition- they are completely devoid of any new ideas. Change your name to the Democratic Socialist Party and come out of the closet.

By: i.am.a.taxpayer on 4/18/11 at 9:56

It was not right for previous people to serve simultaneously on the Metro Council and the State Legislature. It is still not right. Even if it is not illegal, it is an obvious conflict of interest. Local governments and state governments have different roles and different priorities.

No one can serve both at the same time on many issues. Right now, the State Legislature is trying to block an ordinance already passed by the Metropolitan Council.

Serving in multiple legislative bodies is double dipping of the worst kind.

By: breathofdeath on 4/18/11 at 9:57

There is currently no prohibition against serving in the Council and the state legislature at the same time so I have a problem with criticizing Gotto for doing something that is perfectly perfectly legal at this time. That said, I do think there is a conflict of interest and this issue needs to be addressed in the future. For those who don't have cable but do have internet access and want to see Metro Council meetings here is the link to watch Metro3 live on streaming media. You can also watch archived meetings as well:

http://www.nashville.gov/metro3/live.asp

By: Moonglow1 on 4/18/11 at 10:08

Moonglow1: how tiresome Nitzche. All this talk about socialism. Don't you know that the tea party is raw socialism. What is the difference between Karl Marx controlling people or corporate interests controlling them. It is the same deal. In both instances your voice is irrelevant. Notice how all laws are overturned when the tea party does not agree with them (i.e. anti gay bias law passed and signed by our Mayor). Shoving creationism down our throats when our students cannot compete in the global economy now! I don't agree with creationism, but it does not matter. As long as the theo-tea nuts believe it, we are stuck with it.

By: revo-lou on 4/18/11 at 12:04

{breathofdeath on 4/18/11 at 10:57
There is currently no prohibition against serving in the Council and the state legislature at the same time so I have a problem with criticizing Gotto for doing something that is perfectly perfectly legal at this time. }

This is a really weak argument for doing or not doing something. It is not illegal to pick your nose and flick the booger down the street, but it is still a nasty thing to do. The conflict of interest here is astounding (look at the current anti-bias bill from metro and the retaliation measure in the State legislature for example) and Gotto should resign one or the other seats, period. Let’s hope that he has enough of the “right stuff” to do the “right thing”.

By: breathofdeath on 4/18/11 at 2:52

I believe I DID say that it was a conflict of interest, did I not? Did I not also say that this issue DOES need to be addressed? But what he is doing is not ILLEGAL! Technically you could possibly be cited for flicking a booger on the street on a charge of littering but at least that charge would be based on a LEGAL argument, not a moral or ethical one. Try taking a booger-flicking case into court with the argument that it's nasty but have no legal basis to support your charge and see how quickly you get laughed out of court. If you don't like what Gotto is doing then work to change the Metro Charter to prohibit it instead of puling and whining because the rules (or lack thereof) don't favor your position.

By: revo-lou on 4/18/11 at 3:17

My point was and is, that your little CYA post is BS. "It's wrong, but it ain't illegal" is a pile of BS knee deep. Using your logic, slavery was okay too, given it was legal at the time. Laws are made because we have STUPID people in this world, not because smart people need to know the "way" to function. No one should have to change anything, Gotto should look at the situation and should say "there is a HUGE conflict here, I should step down". Waiting to be "told" to by a law is POOR leadership. Something it seems you have no problem with.

By: Nitzche on 4/18/11 at 3:48

moonglow----,self-employed, or work for corporation? I would be thankful if were even employed, helping the rest of us pull this Tea Bag,theo bag

By: revo-lou on 4/18/11 at 3:52

And, of course Gotto voted against the recently passed nondiscrimination ordinance, and will be voting to remove the power from the city to pass such bills. Yeah, you are right, this isn't illegal. And, you are right, we need a law, to prevent HIM from being elected, and from YOU voting.

By: Nitzche on 4/18/11 at 4:03

wait a minute......Government worker?......or still living in basement of Mamma's hpuse?

By: Loretta Bridge on 4/18/11 at 4:17

Every day I read something else that makes me question the intelligence of the tax payers and citizens of Tennessee. First they elect a woman to sit on the City Council that doesn't even live in Nashville but lives in Detroit and now this. The new Gov. gives raises to his chosen few and say "Well they left higher paying jobs to be in my Cabinet"...well that was their choice. Now this. The only good about TN is no state income tax. I don't mind the high sales tax because everyone has to pay that. The dope dealer, pimps, prostitutes and other criminals wouldn't pay a state tax anyway but they have to pay sales tax when they spend it. I AM SO SICK OF POLITICIANS. WHEN WILL WE WAKE UP?

By: breathofdeath on 4/18/11 at 4:26

You may think my view is BS, and that's okay, but the reality is that most people will take advantage of any and every loophole they can, not because they're stupid but because of human nature. Yes slavery was legal and it was also wrong but that wrongness was overshadowed by human nature in the form of greed on the part of those involved. Remember when Charlie Tygard thumbed his nose at term limits and ran for an at-large seat after 8 years as a district councilman? I didn't agree with what he did, agreed even less with the cushy legal opinion supporting him, and was appalled that voters passed the amendment codifying what Tygard did (I didn't vote for the amendment and will never vote for a counilman who utilizes that route). Again, human nature. Same with Jim Gotto. I don't like what he's doing any more than you do, but dreams of utopia won't have the same impact in this instance that a charter amendment will.