This story was updated Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m.
After police intervened in a disruptive situation during last week's meeting, Chattanooga City Council members are considering how to best change and enforce public comment rules to prevent future outbursts.
During the council's Oct. 8 voting meeting, local activist and 2021 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, resulting in police being asked to escort Mott 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 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 individual in a given 30-day time period. Mott chimed in from the audience during the gun violence discussion and was reprimanded by Chairman Erskine Oglesby in just one of the pair's several such disagreements about public comments in recent months.
"I think some of our rules, like limiting each speaker to three minutes, make good sense, but I just don't know what the meaning is behind some of them and I would need a pretty good reason to limit speech," Berz said.
While no legislation or specific time changes have been drafted, Berz called for changes to the aforementioned 30-day rule and to the rule that prohibits the public from speaking about agenda items.
"The other thing that bugs me about [the rules] is that, if you can't speak about anything that's on the agenda, once we've had two readings and [members of the public] have stayed quiet, [they] don't have an opportunity to speak before the second reading," Berz said. "I'm not sure what's so precious about our time that we can't listen to the public that elected us. So I'm tossing it out there; we should have a second look at these rules."
Though several council members echoed Berz's concerns, others shifted the narrative to stopping outbursts by enforcing state statute, which describes verbal disruptions of meetings as "disorderly," suggesting state law be read before public comment sections and police remove offenders during such outbursts.
According to the chairman, since public comment opportunities are not required by law, citizens need to be more respectful of the "luxury" provided at meetings.
"What we do by allowing people the opportunity to speak is like a luxury," Oglesby said. "I believe in freedom of speech and I believe we should still allow people to speak, but you know, it's one of those things that is just value added to our meetings."
Oglesby added after the meeting that outbursts are disrespectful to the council and other members of the public trying to speak and can even pose safety issues.
"I'm not against public comment or even lifting the two-comments-in-a-month thing, but we have to do what's best for this council and the public during meetings," he said. "Our clerk sits with her back to this crowd, and I know I wouldn't want to have an unruly crowd behind me when I couldn't see them. I just think we have to consider not just getting our work done and allowing people to speak, but also what's the safest way to do all that."
In the strategic planning meeting council members separately discussed a plan to revamp the assembly room where voting and agenda meetings take place, plans which tentatively include a safety wall between the audience and the dais, among other restructuring. According to Oglesby, he had asked for staff to look at the plan well before Tuesday's incident and the timing was purely coincidental.
After the discussion, the council set a plan to review and introduce new public comment rules on Oct. 29.
Under the council's code, there will be a chance for public comment at the end of every business meeting, every Tuesday at 6 p.m., but speakers must adhere to the following rules:
— 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.
— The chairperson will not recognize any person, neighborhood association or organization to speak to the council during the "non-agenda matters" portion of the agenda more than twice in any 30-day period.
— 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.
In other news:
During the voting meeting, city council members approved a resolution giving Mayor Andy Berke the approval to donate a 27,000-square-foot facility on the lot of the former Harriet Tubman subdivision to Nippon Paint Automotive Americas Inc.
The plan for the $61 million plant was announced in September, eight years after the Chattanooga Housing Authority closed one of the city's largest public housing projects, leaving the property abandoned until the Japanese manufacturer moves in next year.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.