The Chattanooga Times Free Press is suing the city of Chattanooga, alleging City Council members and staff violated open meeting laws by redrawing city voting districts at meetings with no public access or notice.
The Chattanooga Publishing Co., in a complaint filed Friday, asks a Chancery Court judge to order the council to follow Tennessee's Open Meetings Act in future proceedings. If the city is found to have violated the act, it could also be required to submit to oversight for a year.
"During the redistricting process, it was clear that there were some pretty egregious violations of the state's open meeting law," said Times Free Press Editor Alison Gerber in a Friday interview. "The public should have had a window into the process, and input in the process, yet it was done behind closed doors."
The newspaper is represented by attorney Paul McAdoo, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group focused on First Amendment issues.
"The open meetings law is just one of the foundational aspects of governmental transparency and public oversight," McAdoo said in a phone call Friday, "and these sorts of cases are important to bring to enforce those rules."
City Council members declined to comment on the complaint Friday, saying the city attorney advised them not to speak publicly about the case. But the city issued a statement Friday afternoon.
"This is a lawsuit led by a Washington, D.C.-based activist group, which has partnered with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a brazen attempt to overturn well-established legal precedent by restricting the right of individual City Council representatives to communicate one-on-one with city administrators to get help for their constituents in a timely manner," the statement said.
Following the 2020 census, the Chattanooga City Council was tasked with redistricting, or redoing the map that decides how residents are represented in city government.
In 2021, then-council Chairman Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, created an ad hoc redistricting committee made of four council members -- East Lake's Raquetta Dotley, Hixson's Ken Smith, Washington Hills' Isiah Hester and Carol Berz of Brainerd Hills.
The committee met "on a regular basis," according to emails obtained by the Times Free Press, and talked about redistricting with staff members including Chris Anderson, the mayor's senior legislative adviser. The lawsuit alleges no meeting minutes were kept from that committee.
Berz told members of the public, in a March hearing on the new map, that the council had followed the law during the redistricting process and was not required to take public input.
"When I tell you this is the most kosher thing that's ever happened, it is," Berz told the Times Free Press at the time.
Berz also addressed the process in a March 17, 2022, email obtained by the Times Free Press.
"On several occasions, Councilpersons Dotley, Smith, Hester and I occupied the same space in the Mayor's large conference room, where Mr. Anderson and his folks educated us regarding the law relative to redistricting and City demographics resultant of the 2020 census," Berz wrote said in the email.
After the committee came up with recommendations, the lawsuit said, city staff members were asked to apply them to a new map. Before the map was finalized, staff met with each individual council member to "flesh out" the details of the map, including their own districts, the complaint alleges.
"We'd come to you individually and say, 'What are you interested in having in your district, and what works for you?'" Andrew Sevigny, a performance analyst for the city, said in a March 2022 presentation of the map cited in the complaint.
As a result, council members were able to draw their own districts and essentially choose their own constituents, said Gerber, the Times Free Press editor.
"It should be the other way around," Gerber said.
The public was not notified of or invited to attend redistricting meetings until after a map was proposed based on committee recommendations and individual council members gave their input, the complaint alleges. The map, the suit says, was only posted publicly in March, the same day it was presented at a council meeting.
"Finally, the City Council, as a whole, held noticed public meetings to vote on and hear feedback from the community on the redistricting plan that had been developed in secret, behind closed doors, by the Redistricting Committee and in individual meetings," the lawsuit said.
Individual meetings between staff and council members would violate the open meetings act, the publisher alleges, since their purpose was to discuss and decide public business. But the city said such meetings are routine.
"The Open Meetings Act applies only to legislative bodies and boards such as the City Council or County Commission, not to this or any other city administration, or any other city staff, which would grind the city's operations to a halt," the city's statement said.
If the judge finds the city and council members violated open meetings laws, the publisher is asking the court to ensure violations – like creating ad hoc committees and holding closed meetings with council members and staff – don't happen again in the future.
According to its complaint, the publisher is also requesting the court oversee the city for a year and require semi-annual reports on its compliance with the Open Meetings Act. The suit also seeks attorney's fees and payment for other costs related to the matter.
Why it matters
Chattanooga residents brought up concerns about a lack of transparency in redistricting in the spring, when council members were finalizing the map.
Everlena Holmes, founder of the Hamilton County Voters Coalition, said the coalition asked Berz, who chaired the ad hoc redistricting committee, in August 2021 to notify them and the public when the process began. The coalition was told there was no rush, since the process only needed to be completed by 2024, Holmes said.
According to a timeline provided by the city, Berz first requested help tabulating census data in September and held the first committee meeting in October. Holmes said she did not hear anything about the process until the map was presented in public for the first time in March.
"They never got back to us," Holmes said. "So when we found out, you know, we went, but it was a done deal."
Holmes said in a phone interview Friday she felt the council was simply rubber-stamping a version of the map that had been decided in private. At the sole public meeting, held March 29, members of the coalition and other local organizers asked council members to restart the redistricting process to conduct it publicly.
"When you redraw a district, you draw people out, and you can draw it to fit your needs rather than the needs of the people who are voting," Holmes said.
The makeup of the final map is less of a concern than how it was made, Holmes said. She was glad to see three districts in the adopted version where a majority of residents are members of racial minorities, up from two in the previous map.
This year's redistricting process was especially concerning given the last round, following the 2010 census, was done publicly, said Helen Burns Sharp, a member of the voters coalition and founder of watchdog organization Accountability for Taxpayer Money.
All nine members of the City Council were on the redistricting committee at that time, Sharp said in an email, and the committee held seven open meetings that allowed public input.
"It was far more open and far more accessible to the public," recalled Eric Atkins, co-chairman of voter advocacy organization Unity Group, in a phone interview Friday.
Ann Pierre, president of the Chattanooga NAACP, said she feels staff members from the mayor's office, who are not elected, should not influence redistricting.
The city, in its response to the Times Free Press on Friday, said executive branch staff regularly carry out requests from council members, allowing the city to function in a timely manner.
"If successful, this lawsuit would impact the ability of every local government across Tennessee to provide the type of quality, responsive service that taxpayers rightly expect and deserve," the response said.
Private government meetings are likely much more common than the public can know, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
"Yes, debate can get uncomfortable between the council members out there in public," Fisher said. "But it allows the public and journalists who are reporting on it to understand the factors behind a decision, and also to understand what their individual council member thinks and wants."
Enforcing open meetings law in Tennessee is hard, Fisher said by phone Friday, since it requires a lawsuit – a costly and time-intensive process.
"Most citizens would have to dig into their own pocket, you know, just to enforce the law," Fisher said. "So the truth is there's very little enforcement of the law."
Gerber, the paper's editor, said the Times Free Press is a guardian of open records and meetings in the Chattanooga area, as its newspaper of record.