To elect the Cookeville mayor or not…that is the question

By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ

COOKEVILLE – It is a long-standing tradition that after each Cookeville City Council election the newly elected members appoint the councilperson receiving the most votes to serve as the city’s mayor. 

That tradition is now being challenged by a resolution introduced shortly before Monday’s work session meeting, calling for the mayoral position to be elected by voters instead of appointed by the council.

Councilman Mark Miller emailed the resolution to members of the city council less than an hour before the work session, hoping to have discussion about the matter. The resolution as written would make the process to select the mayor a formal election where candidates for the city council would have to state upfront whether they wanted to also run for mayor. The individual receiving the highest votes in the race for mayor would win that position, providing they also earned one of the five highest vote totals for council, and the other four individuals receiving the highest number of votes would constitute the remainder of the council. 

Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton agrees that the process needs to be changed, in fact he introduced the idea for changing the way Cookeville chooses its mayor, but he doesn’t feel like the issue should be rushed through the council. Shelton says that over the past five years, he has had hundreds of people ask him why the mayor is elected the way we do it in Cookeville, which started his research into the matter.

“I believe there should be a direct election of mayor and an election of council. How that’s facilitated, we can certainly discuss and debate,” Shelton said. “I think the people should be involved in that: public hearings and work sessions. I think there should be town halls. How do people want their government to function and act? I think, ultimately, the people should get to vote on that in a referendum.”

At the Nov. 4 council work session, Shelton stated he was exploring options to change the way the Cookeville mayor was selected. He has requested that Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) and Tennessee Municipal League (TML) give him examples of what other cities do and how they do it.

“There’s 345 cities in Tennessee. 53 of them, only, do it like we do it, and all but two of those are much smaller than us,” shared Shelton.

At the council work session on Monday, Miller announced that he had sent each council member a resolution, because “the mayor had proposed letting the people vote for the mayor.”

“I want the people to be able to select the mayor,” said Miller. 

Cookeville City Attorney Dan Rader immediately called for an attorney-client closed-door meeting to discuss the resolution, and department heads and media were asked to leave the room.

UCBJ later learned that that there was a heated exchange among the council members about the resolution, but no significant discussion was had about what the next steps were. 

One cornerstone of Miller’s resolution is the continuation of term limits. 

The resolution states, “Current term limits in existence shall apply with respect to both the position of Mayor and the position of City Council Member, so that no individual may serve more than two consecutive terms on the City Council, either as a City Council Member or as Mayor without having to sit out one election before they are eligible to run for either position.” 

Miller emphasized his stance on term limits after the meeting.

“Something really important to me is that we protect the integrity of our term limits,” said Miller. “I don’t think we should remove term limits from office and allow persons to continually run for office.”

“I think that term limits are important in the way city officials are elected,” Vice-Mayor Laurin Wheaton agreed. “It allows new people to come through, new ideas, diversity. If you have the same people in the same positions all the time, you become stagnant, so I think that is very important in whatever way we decide to go with changing the way the mayor is chosen. Keeping the term limits in place, I don’t think we need to deviate from that.”

Shelton agrees that term limits are fine, and they shouldn’t go away, but he feels that the council and mayoral positions should be separate and should have separate term limits.

“If you’ve got an eight-year councilman, and they are really good and have all this experience, why shouldn’t they be allowed to run for mayor? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s two separate offices. The term limit follows the office,” Shelton suggested.

Council members seem to agree that the form of government utilizing a city manager is the best choice for Cookeville and don’t want the position of mayor changed or made into a full-time position.

With the next Cookeville city election not being held until August 2022, questions have arisen about the rush to change the process.

“What’s prompted any of this is the fact that there is a group of people, supported by one of the council members, that is actively lobbying to change the charter, and they can do that. They can do that around the council,” explained Councilman Eric Walker about the apparent suddenness of the proposal. 

Shelton feels the issue needs more discussion before any action is taken on the matter. 

“Why the rush when we don’t have all the information, and we haven’t allowed the citizens to have any voice?” asked Shelton. “That’s a substantial change. It shouldn’t be what I want, or Miller wants, but it should be a collective of what is best, utilizing MTAS, to give us what the other cities have done, and how they do it and then arrive at what is best for us going forward. Then, request to get it on a ballot and let people vote on it if they want it changed that way.”

Miller stated that, by introducing the resolution, he was trying to initiate discussion about the process. Wheaton agreed.

“I would like to have more discussion,” said Wheaton. “I want to make sure that everyone understands each other; everyone knows where we’re coming from; everyone knows what the end goal is. What are we trying to accomplish with this change? I don’t want any misunderstandings, and I think that happens when you don’t communicate. I want more discussion … and we haven’t had the time to do that.”

Walker agreed, “Let’s have a good talk in front of the public and see what comes out of that. That’s the way government should work.”

Miller confirmed the resolution would not appear on Thursday night’s regular city council agenda.

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