One of the first things Darrell Woodcock wanted to propose as a newly elected alderman seven years ago was the idea of term limits for Hendersonville’s mayor and aldermen.
Once elected, however, Woodcock said he was told by multiple people with knowledge of city and state government that the process for passing the measure – or even getting it on the ballot - was nearly impossible.
“I was told that I’d have to get every city that uses our charter to change theirs at the same time which obviously meant it was too cumbersome to do,” recalled the Ward 5 alderman. “So I pretty much gave up.”
But when resident Beth Wettengel approached Woodcock with the idea earlier this year, he was receptive.
Wettengel, who has been active in several local causes over the years, had done her homework.
She researched Hendersonville’s charter, gathered information from the county and state election commissions, studied the Tennessee code related to charters and referendums, and researched the process the city of Gallatin went through in order to hold a referendum on the issue last year. Once on the ballot, the measure to limit that city’s council members and mayor to three consecutive, four-year terms passed with 79.8 percent of the vote.
“I was motivated to try to figure out a way for the citizens of Hendersonville to have a voice – and to be able to choose whether or not they wanted this,” said Wettengel. “I just wanted us to have a choice. I don’t think the seat that people hold to be theirs term after term after term.”
Wettengel explained that city leaders could pass a resolution asking the state legislature to amend the rules for the type of charter the city has in order to allow term limits. Once approved by the state, city leaders would have to vote twice more to put the measure up for a referendum.
Woodcock consulted with Gary Jaeckel of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service.
Jaeckel said it would be possible to ask legislators to amend the law governing the mayor-aldermanic general law charter.
“There’s already a section in that charter that allows certain communities to have term limits,” said Jaeckel, adding that they are in Knox and Shelby counties. “It exists now for those two counties, so there’s a way to make it work.”
Once state legislators approve the charter amendment, city leaders would have to vote by ordinance, or two readings, what exactly the limits would be and who they would apply to. Both votes would again require a two-thirds majority of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. All of this would be required before the measure would be put on a ballot for voters.
Woodcock is proposing Resolution 2019-60 – a resolution to asking the General Assembly to amend the Tennessee Code Annotated to allow Hendersonville to establish term limits for the offices of mayor and aldermen. The city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen will vote on the resolution in the coming weeks.
The Ward 5 alderman said he wants to see the measure on the ballot for the Nov. 3, 2020 general election.
Jaeckel says the time frame will be a tight one. According to state law, a measure must be put on the ballot not more than 75 days before the election. City leaders would need to pass Woodcock’s resolution, get approval from the legislature, and then pass an ordinance by mid-August in order to get it on the November ballot, Jaeckel noted.
The MTAS advisor admitted he’s not a big fan of term limits himself.
“There’s some value in every community and organization to having institutional knowledge of what has been done before – and the why and how things have been done,” he said. “Personally, I’m not a big proponent of term limits for that reason. I lean toward the argument that if someone is not doing their job or (you) don’t like the decisions they make, you get the opportunity to vote someone else in.”
Wettengel, who would like to see the city’s aldermen and mayor limited to two terms, believes it would encourage more citizens to become involved in the process.
“I think that someone who’s considering jumping in a race considers how much money [incumbents] have to roll over from one election to the next,” she said. “And it’s just a general known fact that incumbents are harder to defeat than people who have never held that office just with the name recognition and the special interests that get involved.”
Woodcock says he wants voters to decide if they want city leaders to have term limits.
“This is not a vote for term limits – it’s a vote to let the citizens determine if we have term limits,” he said. “Because even if we BOMA say we want term limits and the citizens get in the booth and say no, it dies. They decide to do it or not. Not us.”