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The Chattanooga City Council is weighing how to do business while promoting public safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
At their first meeting since the first local case was announced, the six present members of the council quickly and unanimously voted Tuesday to cancel all council meetings, waive existing rules on meeting times and grant Chairman Erskine Oglesby the authority to determine when to reconvene.
When it came to details of how to conduct business, the decision was not that clear.
On the one hand, council members want to promote social distancing and public health by suspending in-person meetings. On the other, state regulations require that meetings be public.
"The problem that you have currently is that under state law ... all meetings [are] to be done by legislative bodies in public," City Attorney Phil Noblett advised the council. "That's traditionally been done in person, but there are provisions that allow state boards to be able to do things by telephonic or electronic means ... but that has not been allowed for municipalities at this point."
Council members made plans to use email communications as a make-shift committee to discuss how to proceed with electronic meetings, which would be open to the public but not be considered quorum meetings to take votes unless the state gives municipalities new freedoms under emergency circumstances.
"There's a lot going on in the Legislature right now about amendments that would allow that to occur during the time of emergency," Noblett added, noting that the legislature itself is facing meeting concerns, so a resolution is uncertain.
As the city shifts to some email deliberation about future meetings, Councilman Ken Smith said journalists and others will be able to access the communication without going through the sometimes lengthy Tennessee Open Records Act request policy.
As they figure out the logistics of meeting, the council members are having to weigh their own health against their responsibilities as elected officials.
"We got families we have to go home to and, with working with the public, we really don't know if we've been exposed to [the virus] or not," Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod said, noting that even the meeting to discuss safety had more than doubled the federal government's recommendation to avoid gatherings of 10 or more. "We're actively in the public ... it's important to me that we make sure that we are safe."
Still, District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd said that, while many items of business are not urgent and can be deferred, some stuff, including the city's budget which has to be approved by the end of June under state law, demands the council tough it out through the virus.
"We are in this situation where our lives and the way we're going to live in Chattanooga has changed," Byrd said. "And I'm pretty sure a lot of police officers and firefighters don't want to do what they have to do now, but this is part of the hard job that we took the oath to uphold. It's tough work."
Byrd suggested that five members of the council, which is the minimum required for a quorum, meet in the last two weeks of April to meet the city charter's requirement of two meetings per month, while postponing meetings as much as possible and allowing those most at risk to stay home.
Despite the challenges, the chairman ended the meeting with a word of hope for the council and city.
"We're not even a week into accepting these challenges and figuring out how best to continue the business of the city while we maintain the health and safety of our constituents," Oglesby said. "We will be moving forward. Regardless of how things look now, throughout history we have been through situations like this and have always overcome them through patience and being together and working as one."
While no date was set for a future meeting, Oglesby told the Times Free Press over the weekend that he intends to cancel meetings through at least the end of the month. Oglesby also asked that a recommendation on remote meetings be made no later than Monday.