Lawyers for the city of Chattanooga are asking to dismiss a lawsuit from the publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press that accuses the city of redrawing City Council voting districts without enough public input.
The city's response, filed Friday in Chancery Court, says that while council members met privately with staff to discuss changes to their voting districts, those meetings didn't violate Tennessee's Open Meetings Act since they were informational and no final decisions were made.
(READ MORE: Chattanooga's redistricting process not public enough, Times Free Press lawsuit alleges)
The newspaper filed the lawsuit in December, asking a judge to order the City Council to follow the Open Meetings Act going forward. The Times Free Press is represented by attorney Paul McAdoo with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization focused on First Amendment rights. McAdoo declined to comment on the city's response Monday.
The suit alleges the city's redistricting process, following the 2020 census results, was not done publicly enough. An ad hoc committee made of four council members met regularly to make recommendations to staff about the new map, but no minutes or other records of those meetings were kept and no public notice of the meetings was given, the complaint alleges.
Staff then met with each council member one-on-one, according to the complaint, to "flesh out" details of the map, including in their own districts. After those meetings, the suit states, the proposed map was made public for the first time and received input from Chattanooga residents. During the first public hearing, several residents questioned the redistricting process and requested it be restarted to be done publicly.
(READ MORE: Chattanooga residents call for redistricting process to restart at first and only public hearing)
In its response Friday, the city says the paper's lawsuit failed to state enough of a claim for the court to rule on. A hearing on the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit is set for Feb. 6.
The city also maintains the one-on-one meetings were held legally. A spokesperson for the city declined to comment further on the case Monday, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
"Discussion about the nine individual district maps which involved different City Council elective offices constitutes discussion about nine separate topics and did not have to occur initially in a public meeting if all districts were eventually approved by the entire council in publicly noticed meetings at the end of this process," the response states.
Even if those meetings were found to violate the Open Meetings Act, the city's response says, those violations may have been "cured," or made right, since multiple public meetings about the new district map were held after it was made public in March.
(READ MORE: Chattanooga City Council's redistricting process may have violated open meetings laws)
"The individual informational/feedback meetings did not constitute the City Council as a body making or deliberating toward a decision," the response says. "The Court should dismiss that aspect of the case."
If the complaint isn't dismissed altogether, lawyers for the city are asking Judge Pamela Fleenor to remove individual city council members, who are sued in their official capacities, as defendants in the lawsuit.
"If the council members are sued in their official capacity, all the case law says that really you're just suing the city as an entity," said attorney Sam Elliott, who represents the city and council members, by phone Monday.
Naming the city and members of the council as defendants is redundant and unnecessary, the response says.
Contact Ellen Gerst at email@example.com or 423-757-6319.