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Chattanooga City Council members are sparring over accessibility again, debating the need for weekly strategic planning meetings.

As it stands, the council meets weekly with three public meetings on Tuesday: the first, a strategic planning meeting during which most deliberation for council business and agenda setting takes place; the second, an agenda meeting durinig which council members set the agenda and hold most committee meetings; and the third, a business meeting during which the council votes on the day's agenda.

In the last two weeks, District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod has been pushing for the city council to cut the strategic planning meetings from weekly to either biweekly or monthly.

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Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod speaks during a Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday, July 30, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

"We can discuss the same issues at our agenda session and we also, if we get enough notice, can say, 'OK we need to come early to discuss something' or, if we have an attorney-client [meeting], we can come earlier," Coonrod said during last week's strategic planning meeting. "To meet every week, to me, is just not productive."

Most weeks, including the two weeks when this discussion has come up, the council has had enough education sessions, reports and business to discuss that the meetings in question actually ran over time.

(MORE: 'How precious is our time': Chattanooga City Council members reconsider public comment rules following series of disruptions)

The amount of business and education included in the non-voting meetings had District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz defending the need for the meetings.

"We introduced the strategic planning meeting several years ago for the council to be able to do just what we're doing now," Berz said during a discussion of strategic planning. "To educate ourselves, to have these discussions in a more intimate setting where we can talk. What we also invited to happen was giving the public even more access to us in a smaller venue."

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Councilwoman Carol Berz speaks about the Business Improvement District during a Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

According to Berz, who spent the fall arguing the same point during discussions about public comment restrictions, if they decide to pare down on public meetings and open discussion, council members are being too stingy with their time.

"The dais can be off-putting to citizens and in here we can interact better," Berz said of the less formal conference room in which the planning meetings are held, compared to the formal chamber room where the other meetings are held. "I think it's very important that we not do anything that removes us or takes us further from the public in this kind of venue. And because we're not taking official votes but rather educating ourselves, those [council members] who feel like they cannot be there should just not come that day."

"Here again, I don't think our time is so important that we can't give that extra hour and a half," Berz added.

(MORE: Invoking the name of Martin Luther King, citizens call for Chattanooga to address gun violence, livable wages)

Neither Coonrod nor Berz have gotten a clear majority of the council to voice opinions on limiting the meetings.

District 3 Councilman Ken Smith, who has one of the lowest attendance records of the bunch at the planning meetings, supported Coonrod's biweekly or bimonthly approach last week, but District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd said this week that the meetings are too educational and important to the public to cut back.

Continued discussion on the meeting frequency is scheduled for first thing at next week's strategic planning meeting.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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