After months of discourse surrounding public comments, the Chattanooga City Council will loosen its restrictions to allow more citizen feedback at meetings.
While the council has had several run-ins with public commenters acting outside of decorum this year, an October incident involving the police sparked significant changes in the public comment policy that passed late Tuesday.
During the council's Oct. 8 voting meeting, local activist and 2021 District 8 city council candidate Marie Mott continued a streak of passionate interruptions at council meetings during a heartfelt call to action about several recent fatal shootings of young men in East Chattanooga, resulting in police being asked to escort her out of the meeting and the meeting being abruptly adjourned.
"How precious is our time that we can't allow a few more people to speak?" District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz said to her colleagues during a strategic planning session the next Tuesday. "People put us in office, and I think we should be listening to them."
Mott was told before public comments that she, by name, was not allowed to speak during the meeting, having exceeded the council's limit of two public comments by any person in a given 30-day time period. Mott chimed in from the audience during the gun violence discussion and was reprimanded by Erskine Oglesby in the most heated of the pair's several similar disagreements about public comments in recent months.
With notable pushback from some council members who believe enforcement is the issue at hand and Oglesby, who called public comments "a luxury," Berz fought for legislation to remove the restriction on number of comments in a 30-day period, which she amended to also allow public commenters to address ordinances between first and second reading.
"I just don't see how anyone could side against free speech," Berz said of her colleagues Tuesday afternoon, when the outcome of the vote was unclear. "What is three extra minutes for your constituents, and why are you so afraid of hearing from the people who elected you?"
Representing several changes of heart from the afternoon meeting to the voting meeting, the amended rule change passed 7-0 in what Berz called "a shock" after the meeting.
Later in the meeting, Mott stood at the podium as the only public commenter, but was told she could not speak under the 30-day rule still in place through the end of November.
"That's all right; I'll be back next week," she said, later thanking Berz for her commitment to public comment.
Under the council's code, there will be a chance for public comment at the end of business meetings, every Tuesday at 6 p.m., but speakers must adhere to the following rules:
— Speakers may address the council on ordinances on the agenda at the meeting where a first vote is taken, but not after the second and final vote, per Berz's amendment.
— Each speaker wishing to address the council will be recognized only at the microphone provided for that purpose.
— No person will have more than three minutes to speak.
— The speaker can address the council only on matters within the legislative and quasi-judicial authority of the council.
— The speaker will not be permitted to use any vulgar or obscene language, nor use the floor to personally attack or personally denigrate others.
— Those wishing to address the council can do so only once during a council day, either at the agenda session, at a committee meeting or at the council business meeting.
Contact information for each council member can be found at chattanooga.gov/city-council/council-members.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.