Opinion: Council meeting time change: Who really benefits?

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / Citizens observe a meeting of the Chattanooga City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.

The Chattanooga City Council has changed its business meeting time, a move that leaves just one impression: Council members are limiting public access to their business, which is our business.

During an Oct. 24 meeting, council Chair Raquetta Dotley proposed a change that would push back the 6 p.m. business meeting to ... who knows? The new schedule calls for the voting meeting to start after a brief recess following the 3:30 p.m. agenda and committee meetings.

The rest of the council went along with Dotley's proposal.

The announcement of the time change appeared in the public notice section of the Times Free Press on Oct. 29, a week ago. Media releases were sent out on Monday announcing the schedule change that went into effect on Tuesday.

(READ MORE: New Chattanooga City Council meeting schedule criticized for ‘no predictability’)

The time change was also discussed during an Oct. 31 strategic planning meeting and subsequent regular business meeting.

Dotley wanted the change to make council meetings more efficient.

"We wanted to be a more efficient government," she said last week about the reason behind the time change. "The six o'clock time can sometimes be inconvenient for people so we wanted to try a different time and see how it works, not only for us but the community as well."

Dotley said the change was made to ensure that the meetings aren't taking away from "family time," referencing how most businesses in the city close at around 6 p.m.

She encouraged residents to reach out to their council representatives if they cannot attend meetings of interest.

"The six o'clock meeting is a business meeting," Dotley said. "If there's an issue, if there's a concern, we always want people to reach out to their representative. You can come and speak at the end (of the meeting) but it's better to connect with the person that represents you."

While there is a set time for weekly agenda and committee meetings (3:30 p.m.), there will be no such set time for the recess or regular council business meeting, where votes are taken. That means citizens won't know when to show up: 4:30? 5:15? 5:30?

For the people or the council?

The time change has already prompted negative reactions. Community advocate Sean Nix created a petition to change the meeting time back to 6 p.m.

"I created the petition because I know how important it is for constituents to know and feel that their voices are heard, and their concerns are addressed," Nix said. So far, the petition has gotten a handful of signatures. Nix said he expects more people will sign as the petition is circulated.

The change comes as a surprise because city council meetings are already efficiently run.

Watch the council's YouTube channel, and it's clear there wasn't a Tuesday 6 p.m. City Council meeting during October that lasted more than one hour, if that. Council members move through their business in a, well, business-like fashion. There is little wasted conversation and tangent discussions.

On Tuesday, the agenda 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 before Tuesday.

So, yes, council members, you have compressed the time you are in council chambers at City Hall, but you have potentially sacrificed public engagement and trust in open government.

Is that trade off worth it?

Accessibility should be a priority

The council's decision to change its meeting time doesn't track with other municipalities in Hamilton County. Red Bank, East Ridge, Soddy-Daisy and Signal Mountain, for example, meet in the evening. The Hamilton County Commission has at times come under sharp criticism for convening on Wednesdays at 9:30 a.m.

Sure, one could argue that citizens will find a way to attend meetings for issues important to them, as some council members have said. But there is power is predictability, and now council meeting times will be unpredictable. That is not reassuring to the public.

This appears to be a move to appease council members who are not prioritizing the public service element of their positions. This does not improve public access to open meetings or citizen opportunity to address the full council directly.

Improve efficiency? Yes, if this means council members get home earlier. But they have ignored the inconvenience imposed on their constituents who work, wait in line to pick up their children from school or daycare, or navigate rush-hour traffic before hustling to City Hall for a 6 p.m. meeting.

This is not to say council meetings are jam-packed with people every week. They are not.

But whether there are 15 or 50 people at the 6 p.m. meeting, council members must appreciate that those people are their bosses. They shouldn't work around the public.

They should be the council's priority.