published Friday, May 31st, 2013

Haupt: Citizen’s voice: Voting rights and annexation reform

By William Haupt III

“The American system of democracy is founded on the concept that every citizen has the right to vote, to know that their vote is counted, and that the vote is counted accurately.”

—Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Maryland

Since the founding of our nation, voting rights have been expanded repeatedly by legislation and constitutional amendments. When our framers drafted our Constitution, they did not perceive the value of universal suffrage. But, through social evolution our society has progressed and conventionally disenfranchised citizens, such as ethnic minorities and women, have achieved voting rights through these sacrosanct amendments.

More than one-third of the 17 amendments added to the U.S. Constitution since the scribing of the 1791 Bill of Rights have addressed voter eligibility and increased democratic complicity.

On May 16, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed HB 475, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Mike Carter, of Ooltewah, which establishes a 13-month moratorium on the “forced annexations” of farm and residential properties. This monumental legislation is the first annexation reform passed since the adoption of the Growth Policy Act of Tennessee — an infamous piece of legislation considered by many as the third rail of Tennessee politics.

Although the Growth Policy Act was originally crafted with the best intentions to resolve turf wars between cities and counties regarding unincorporated community annexations, one conspicuous ingredient was missing from the equation: The voice of the citizens affected by these annexation ordinances. The citizens were never granted the most coveted right of all; the right to vote on the municipal acquisition of their property.

HB 475 gives the municipalities and rural residents some much needed breathing room while the state’s annexation laws are scrutinized. You would think everyone would welcome this truce to the contentious relationship that has long existed between our cities and our citizens while these unfriendly laws are mediated. Yet, that does not seem to be the case in many of our major cities. By the hysterical reaction of some public officials, you would think that we have placed a tourniquet around the necks of their ability for economic expansion and survival.

No sooner had the bill passed out of the Legislature than rumblings began to reverberate from around the state proclaiming the legislation would be unconscionably detrimental to our municipalities’ ability to tax and exponentially grow. Yet the law does not restrict them in any way from annexing commercial property for economic development. And they can still annex residential and farm communities as long as the citizens are granted a vote.

Forty-seven other states provide their residents autonomy over the destiny of their property by allowing them to vote. Yet today, it seems that many of Tennessee’s local officials still fear that giving us the opportunity to vote whether to allow annexation will be hazardous to their sheer subsistence and perpetuity. It is unfathomable that in today’s politically literate environment that anyone would dare deny anybody the right to vote.

Ending forced annexation after nearly four decades of sequestering our land at will not be a painless task for Tennesseans. But, as Chinese philosopher Laozi proclaimed, “A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.” HB 475 is that exciting and much-needed first step in reforming Tennessee’s unjust annexation laws and empowering residents to determine the fate of their property.

William Haupt III is a retired California legislator now living in Tennessee. He is the founder of Tennesseans Against Forced Annexation.

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