Metro voters will decide Aug. 4 whether to keep the status quo at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds after the Davidson County Election Commission Thursday verified 11,159 petitions, nearly twice the figure needed to add a fairgrounds referendum to the ballot.
The development adds a wrinkle to Metro’s election, affording voters the opportunity to amend Metro's charter to keep auto-racing, an expo center and flea market at the Metro-owned fairgrounds.
The victory for fairgrounds preservationists, led by Councilman Jamie Hollin, would not have happened if not for the election commission’s 4-0 unanimous vote to follow the advice of Metro attorneys to use the August 2010 election as the reference point for the required number of petitions.
That decision, made after an hour of legal debate at Thursday’s commission meeting, changed the benchmark to a 6,742-vote threshold, drastically lower than the more than 15,700 petitions observers had earlier believed were necessary.
Fairgrounds backers cleared the benchmark despite the commission throwing out numerous petition formats because of irregularities.
“The people of Davidson County will decide the issue once and for all,” Hollin said. “And whatever that decision is, that’s it. It will be off the backs of the next council.”
Asked how he and others plan to get enough supporters to the polls in August, Hollin seemed confident.
“You’ll hear from us,” he said.
Throughout the four weeks since the petition drive initiated, observers, including Metro officials, had believed fairgrounds supporters needed petitions from 10 percent of the voters in the previous election, which was Nov. 4.
But Metro attorney Tom Cross alerted the election commission Thursday to a 1983 Tennessee State Supreme Court ruling that held the required signatures to amend the Metro Charter is not 10 percent of the previous statewide general election, which took place in November, but 10 percent of the most recent Metro general election, which the commission agreed took place last August.
Metro tapped a Bass Berry & Sims attorney to assist in informing the opinion. Only 67,420 voters took part in last August’s election; hence, the lowering of the bar.
“At the end of the day, based on the Supreme Court opinion, the August 2010 election is the one that should be used for the referendum,” said Cross, adding the Metro Department of Law would later issue an official legal opinion to the election commission.
The commission’s certification Thursday came after a legal debate between veteran attorney George Barrett — representing a group of fairgrounds neighbors who support Mayor Karl Dean’s desire to redevelop the 117-are fairgrounds — and Hollin.
“It’s always disappointing when the rules seem to change in the middle of the game,” said Colby Sledge, who is part of Neighbors for Progress, the group Barrett represents. “We’re going to go forward with this, and we’re going to see what our options are.”
Barrett argued two points, contending first and foremost that the 1983 state decision was a wrong one. If the commission chose to cite the higher decision, Barrett said, then commissioners should look at the August 2007 election, which included mayoral and council races, as the most recent true Metro general election.
Barrett argued last August’s election was statewide in nature. Had the commission sided with Barrett on this point, the petition threshold would have been approximately 10,000, an amount fairgrounds supporters still surpassed.
In the end, Barrett’s argument didn’t carry the day, with commissioner Steve Abernathy stating that the commission should, by principle, choose the lower threshold.
“On a decision like this, I’m going to defer to making it easier for the citizens of Davidson County to make the decision versus me,” Abernathy said. “I don’t like it when I make a decision that keeps them from having a voice in this issue.”
After the meeting, Barrett didn’t rule out future litigation. “I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Barrett said, adding that attorneys weren’t allowed to view the verification of petitions.
After the number of required petitions was settled, Elections Administrator Albert Tieche showed commissioners eight different petition versions that were submitted last week. Commissioners voted to exclude versions that didn’t mention the charter amendment and others that had the wrong date, as well as formats in which the referendum wording was clearly added after people had already signed. Despite the exclusions, petitioners had more than enough signatures.