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Athens could become first Southeast Tennessee city with council term limits

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: Note: This story was updated on Feb. 3 to clarify that Athens would be the first city in Southeast Tennesse

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: Note: This story was updated on Feb. 3 to clarify that Athens would be the first city in Southeast Tennessee to have term limits for a city council, but not the first for mayor.


Athens could become the first municipality in Southeast Tennessee to have term limits for City Council members starting with election cycles in 2024 and 2026.


There are seven cities with term limits for members of their elected legislative bodies scattered across the rest of Tennessee, according to the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service. They include Clarksville, Collierville, Cookeville, Crossville, Jonesborough, Lebanon and Rockwood.


A lack of new faces on the city’s elected panel over the years has slowed growth and the flow of new ideas, said Larry Eaton, first-time Athens council member and vice mayor,¬†elected in November 2022. Since the city’s resolution was passed 4-1 in December, required legislation to change the city charter to reflect new term limits is in the works in Nashville.


Eaton had the idea for term limits before he decided to run for office and made a term limit message part of the goals in his platform, Eaton said in a phone interview. Along with the charter change to include term limits, he said a change of charter verbiage from “councilman” to “councilperson” would offer more inclusive terminology to broaden the appeal of running for office.


The resolution is now in the hands of McMinn County lawmakers Sen. J. Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, and Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, to be presented to the General Assembly. The two lawmakers couldn’t be reached Friday, but Raelyn Stuart, of Lowe’s office, was able to provide a quick update.


“Sen. Lowe’s office is currently working with the legislative legal team to ensure the Athens city charter amendment is drafted appropriately and introduced this legislative session,” Stuart said via email.


There is no common thread among those towns with term limits aside from the fact they each have private act charters, as does Athens, Susan Robertson, spokesperson for the advisory service, said via email.


“There is no common theme to form of government or even geography,” Robertson said, noting each city took its own path toward term limits.


Eaton and newly-elected Athens Mayor Steve Sherlin campaigned on goals that included establishing term limits because some members had been on the panel for decades, Eaton said. The proposed charter change in Athens seeks to set term limits at three four-year terms.


Former Mayor Bo Perkinson, who lost his seat in November 2022, and longtime Council Member Dick Pelley, who was reelected that year, had been in office for 26 years and 20 years, respectively, Eaton said. Pelley in December was the lone vote against the term limit measure, saying elections already provide term limits at the pleasure of voters.


“We weren’t growing the way we need to be growing,” Eaton said. “These term limits were extremely important. We wanted to fix the charter to stop people from being in power for over 20 years and also to have fresh ideas come in every few years during elections.”


Eaton believes term limits will embolden new leaders to seek office.


“We want to ensure our city government can be changed by our voting mechanism, and some people are afraid to run because these people have been in power for all these years, and that’s one reason I ran to ensure we had fresh ideas,” he said.


If state lawmakers approve the charter change, term limits would begin with city elections in November when seats held by Frances Witt-McMahan and Jordan Curtis will be on the ballot, Eaton said. That means, if the change gains legislative approval, all incumbent council members could run for office three more times before falling under the term limits.


Council Members Sherlin, Curtis, Witt-McMahan and Pelley did not immediately respond to emailed requests seeking comment.


The other seven Tennessee cities with term limits for City Council members took similar paths at varying times through charter changes approved by the state legislature, records show.


Clarksville, with a population of 171,000, imposed term limits in 1993 of three four-year terms; Collierville, population 51,000, set the same standard in 2001, and Lebanon, population of 41,000, took several similar steps between 1929 and 2017, according to advisory service records provided by Robertson.


Cookeville, with a population of 35,000, set term limits at two four-year terms with actions in 1988 and 1994, according to advisory service records. Crossville, population 12,000, set the same limits between 1965 and 2014; Jonesborough, population 6,000, did the same in 2012, and Rockwood, with a population of less than 6,000, followed the same route in 2014. Jonesborough additionally set the limit for the elected mayor at four four-year terms.


There are specific differences among the towns with regard to whether the terms are consecutive or not or whether limits apply to a city’s elected panel member who later seeks the separate office of mayor, records show. Athens’ council members elect the town’s mayor and vice mayor after newly-elected members are sworn in, so there is no separate provision for the mayor’s seat.


Chattanooga has a limit of two four-year terms for mayor, but none for the City Council.