The Chattanooga City Council is sparking complaints about the process it has used to draw new political boundaries using 2020 census data, as several meetings took place behind closed doors.
In a Friday phone interview, Councilwoman Carol Berz, of Brainerd Hills, who chairs the redistricting committee, acknowledged the meetings took place without public notice or access. But she said the meetings were procedural, and council members did not communicate with each other about their districts.
"When I tell you this is the most kosher thing that's ever happened, it is," Berz said.
Berz said council members met twice with the city's statistics team to inform team members that they must comply with the law.
Those who wish to view the proposed map can do so at bit.ly/ChattaRedistrict. The council is holding a public input session at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers, 1000 Lindsay St. That's one week before the council is scheduled to vote on the proposed nine-district map on April 5.
In a March 14 letter obtained by the Times Free Press, the Hamilton County Voters Coalition questioned the closed meetings.
"Our concern here is about the process," the letter said. "We do not know enough about what the committee is recommending to have an opinion on the product, the new proposed district maps. Based on the little we have heard, the committee and staff did work diligently to protect the sustainability of majority-minority districts and the voting rights of all. Thank you."
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said in a Monday email that council members may have violated the Tennessee Sunshine Law that requires a governing body to hold meetings open to the public.
"If that is true — if a council committee that included three city council members were meeting without public notice and without it being a public meeting, that could very likely be a violation of the open meetings act," Fisher said. "The Tennessee Open Meetings Act applies to all governing bodies with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration. It also requires public notice of the meetings, minutes to be taken of the meetings and that the meetings be public. So, if three members of the council were meeting with the purpose of developing draft maps to submit for a recommendation, that would be a violation, in my opinion."
Even after hearing the explanation from Berz, Fisher said the council may be in violation.
"If Ms. Berz said that the council members who were on the committee met twice in the mayor's office with the statistics team, I still believe that could be in violation of the law," Fisher said. "It does not make sense that a meeting would have to take place to instruct the mayor's office to obey the law or to instruct the mayor to meet with council members individually. This could have been achieved by email from the council chair, for example."
Even if council members just met with city data staff to discuss the process, Fisher said, "Why would this not have been done in a regular city council meeting — all out in the open. I am concerned that a council committee has undertaken its task in private and possibly in violation of the open meetings law. So far, the facts seems to point to this. If nothing else, it certainly appears they were meeting in private over all this time on something very important to the public — redistricting maps."