Note: This story was updated on March 30 to correct the affiliation of Marie Mott.
Several residents on Tuesday denounced the Chattanooga City Council's handling of the redistricting process and called for members to restart the procedure entirely.
The comments were made at the first and only scheduled public hearing before the council is to vote on new political maps as early as next week.
During the 30-minute hearing that was scheduled to last up to an hour, speakers overwhelmingly criticized the council for what they said was a failure to engage with the public about drawing new political boundaries based on 2020 census data. Council members have previously said they plan to vote on the nine-district map at their April 5 meeting.
"Whose agenda and purpose has it served for the city council redistricting discussion, report or plans, including the development of the maps, for such limited engagement by so few council members and totally absent of a public engagement until tonight?" said Theresa Turner, co-chair of the Hamilton County Voters Coalition. "Tonight, we're asking the following, because you have plenty of time before 2025: Let's restart the redistricting process in the city, let's include all the city councilors on the committee as a committee of the whole and let's allow public input at the end of each meeting."
Local activist Marie Mott also called for council members to restart the process.
"Is it fair if people are talking and we don't know who, if people presented information and we don't know who, and who vetted the information you received in the first place?" Mott said.
Everlena Holmes, founder of the voter coalition, said the council is losing trust in its constituents due to its handling of the drawing of new political boundaries.
"This appears to be a lack of transparency on the part of the city council," Holmes said. "And this practice also creates a lack of public trust."
Holmes noted that in September, one of the coalition's administrators was told by a city official that council members had until 2025 to put the map in place and that there was no rush. The organization did not hear about the process again until this month, she said.
"So six months had passed, and we're just learning about it," Holmes said.
Helen Burns Sharp, founder of Accountability for Taxpayer Money, reiterated that the process must be restarted because she believes council members violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.
"I believe that public confidence in government has suffered because you did not allow public input as you were developing the map that will affect voting boundaries for the next 10 years," she said. "While we appreciate this public hearing, it feels like it's being done as a way for you to check off the public input box before you vote on the map."
Eric Atkins, of the Unity Group, said the redistricting process is flawed and insufficient when comparing it to the last time the council had to approve a new map a decade ago.
"I can tell you from a grassroots level, public input and transparency and openness are hallmarks of democracy that we fight for every year, every legislative session," Atkins said.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, of Brainerd Hills, who chairs the redistricting committee, said during the meeting that the council has followed the law every step of the process.
She also said that public hearings aren't required by law in the first place but council members wanted to make sure that residents' voices were heard.
"Public input is not required by state law or the charter," Berz said. "We, however, decided that we wanted a lot of public input, and we started out with each of our of council members, my colleagues, meeting and talking with their districts where it was appropriate. So we made it district-specific because redistricting is district-specific. And now we're having a large public input session."
When asked about the calls to restart the redistricting process after the meeting, Berz said council members would be discussing the matter at a strategic planning meeting next week. There, members will weigh all the input they received and decide how they plan to move forward.
When asked if council members still plan to vote on the proposed map next week, Berz said she doesn't know and that will also be discussed at the strategic planning meeting.
The city has posted information about the largest changes to the districts. Berz noted on multiple occasions during the meeting that those changes have been available online for weeks.
Those who wish to view the proposed map can do so at bit.ly/ChattaRedistrict. Any new map wouldn't take effect until March 2025, when the next council elections occur.