New Chattanooga City Council meeting schedule criticized for ‘no predictability’

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Council Chair Raquetta Dotley listens to speakers during a City Council meeting Aug. 22. In October, Dotley proposed changing the time for the council's weekly meetings.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Council Chair Raquetta Dotley listens to speakers during a City Council meeting Aug. 22. In October, Dotley proposed changing the time for the council's weekly meetings.

In a stated effort to increase efficiency, the Chattanooga City Council held its first weekly meeting at its new starting time Tuesday, a move that will likely end meetings earlier.

Prior to Tuesday, the City Council would hold a 3:30 p.m. meeting every Tuesday to discuss the agenda and convene any committees. The council would then recess until 6 p.m., when council members would vote on items and allow residents to speak before the council.

Under the new schedule that started Tuesday, the City Council will now meet at 3:30 p.m. for discussion and committees as before. The voting meeting, however, will start at a time not strictly scheduled beforehand but specified at the adjournment of the 3:30 p.m. meeting.

On Tuesday for example, the agenda discussion and committee meeting ended at around 4:10 p.m. After a recess, the council returned to session for the voting meeting at 4:45 p.m. That meeting ended shortly after 5 p.m., nearly an hour before voting meetings started prior to Tuesday.

One resident spoke during the public comment period at the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting.

"There's absolutely no predictability for the public if they want to show up," said Helen Burns Sharp, founder of the local group Accountability for Taxpayer Money, in a phone interview.

Sharp, who regularly attends meetings and has spoken previously during public comment periods, said she was perplexed by the decision.

State and area council meeting times

Meeting start times locally

— Red Bank: 6 p.m.

— East Ridge: 6 p.m.

— Hamilton County Commission: 9:30 a.m.

Statewide

— Nashville: 6:30 p.m.

— Knoxville: 6 p.m.

— Memphis: 3:30 p.m.

Source: City of Red Bank, city of East Ridge, Hamilton County, city of Nashville, city of Knoxville and city of Memphis.

"What are we doing here?" Sharp said. "I'm concerned about what message this is sending."

Marie Mott, a local community activist who often speaks at City Council meetings, said in a phone interview she was disappointed with the council's decision.

"The average Chattanooga citizen is at work and would not have the ability to be able to participate in a meeting at 3:30," Mott said. "It really highlights the disconnect between city leaders and the community."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County will preserve deleted emails for five years)

City Council Chair Raquetta Dotley, of East Lake, proposed the time change at the council's Oct. 24 meeting. The change was not on the agenda prior to that meeting.

During that meeting, Dotley said the change would start initially on a trial basis.

During discussion of the change, Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, was the only council member who spoke.

"I think that will help us work efficiently," Henderson said during the Oct. 24 meeting, approving of the change.

The council did make an exception to the time change after a comment from Henderson during discussion. Meetings that have public hearings concerning zoning requests should still start at 6 p.m., he said.

"So that participants of the rezoning, anybody that would like to come for the public hearing, would have an opportunity, and everybody would know that our recess on planning and zoning would start at 6," Henderson said.

There was no official vote on the change, and no council members made objections.

According to the minutes for the Oct. 24 meeting, Dotley announced the new time by consensus of the council.

When asked by Dotley at the meeting, City Attorney Phillip Noblett said the only thing required for the change was publishing a notice in the newspaper, appeared in the Oct. 29 edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When asked by the Times Free Press about the time change following Tuesday's meeting, Dotley declined to comment.

The City Council should have considered the effect on residents, Mott said.

"I don't think there was a consideration to community engagement and involvement in terms of how they arrive to this conclusion," Mott said. "It was rather seemingly like, 'This is what's best for us, and the city will have to adjust to what nine people want.'"

(READ MORE: Chattanooga, state officials proposing law to allow incentives for affordable housing development)

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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