Judge sides with Chattanooga on budget vote petition, hours before scheduled vote

'The public has a right to know what's coming,' he says

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Emily Stoddard, of East Ridge High School, and Jordon Austin, of Red Bank High School lead a march across the Walnut Street Bridge on June 8, 2020.

A Hamilton County judge sided with the city of Chattanooga on Tuesday afternoon, denying a citizen's petition to block a final vote on the annual operating budget.

The Chattanooga resident was seeking a temporary restraining order, alleging that the City Council's first vote on the budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1 was taken illegally under local and state open meeting requirements.

According to the filing on Friday by Courtenay Cholovich, the council violated the state requirements involving adequate public notice for government meetings by voting on an amended budget on June 16 that was introduced on June 15.

The city argued that since the required meetings and hearings had been properly noticed and the council's rules allow amendments between readings, there was no violation, and the harm caused by delaying the budget and potentially causing a continuation budget if not passed by the end of June outweighed the citizen's alleged harm.

After an hour and a half, the judge found that the citizen failed to show any violation of the open meetings act, just hours before the final vote scheduled for the budget in question.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga council OKs budget, limits public comments amid calls to defund police)

While Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton sided with the city, he noted it was a close call and that he was concerned about the transparency issues in question.

"This is a close one, in all candor, because the public has a right to know what's coming. The public has the right to participate in a representative form of government. The public needs to have confidence in that government that what is posted is what will happen and have an adequate time period in which to participate in that process," Atherton said.

"I would probably find someone more in favor of the need for public confidence outweighs the need for speed for the city to get a budget passed," he added. "But that was one of the core factors."

He also thanked the seven citizens in attendance for their involvement in both the judicial and legislative process and their respectful conduct during the hearing.

Atherton says there may be more to this case after the legislative process has completed, but the evidence was not sufficient for him to intervene before Tuesday's vote.

The city will take its second and final vote on the budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 23.

Protesters upset at the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 are seeking to defund the police department and invest the money in social programs.

The amendment at issue in the court hearing was an effort by Mayor Andy Berke to redirect less than $2 million of the police budget to community programs. Activists have said they want a minimum of $45 million transferred, and probably more.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.