What is a Charter?
A charter is a municipality’s birth certificate issued by the Tennessee General Assembly. However, it differs from the birth certificate of a child in an important respect: A municipality’s birth certificate comes with a laundry list of what it can and cannot do. The General Assembly puts the list in the document we call, “The Charter.” When the general assembly adds to or takes away from that list, as it has the power to do, we say it has “mended the charter.” There’s a second laundry list of what a municipality can and can-not do. That list is all the general laws passed by the General Assembly that apply to municipalities. They’re found splattered throughout the Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.). The General Assembly can add to or take away from that list, too. When it does so, it has also “amended” the municipality’s charter.
Keep in mind Dillion's Rule and its exceptions, and remember that you must look two places to determine what your municipal charter says.
In two cases that have not yet been overturned, the Tennessee Supreme Court defines a charter as:
- The “constitution of the local government, granted by the [General Assembly], with powers which must be consistent with the [Constitution of Tennessee]” (and of the United States it might have added). East Tennessee University v. Mayor of Knoxville, 65 Tenn. 166 (1873).
- A grant of power from which the city government derives its life and vigor and its limitations and restrictions. State ex rel. Kercheval v. Mayor of Nashville, 83 Tenn. 697 (1885).
The fact that those definitions were issued by a court ought to clue everyone into another important fact about charters: The courts, both state and federal, have a great deal to say about whether something in one is legal. The federal courts have even gone so far as to tell some municipalities that the form of government provided in their charter is illegal.
Those definitions also get across the point that a municipal charter is the constitution of the town or city, the document which brings into existence and defines its powers.