From the very beginning, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke promised open and transparent city government.
"Open and transparent aren't just campaign promises," Berke wrote in a 2014 Code For America blog. "They are words symbolic of a new way of thinking and a new standard for our community."
Do we still believe him?
Consider the mayor's Interagency Council on Homelessness. Charged with planning and coordinating the city's response to homelessness, the council gathered for the first time on May 8.
Behind closed doors.
The meeting wasn't open.
And it wasn't transparent.
"This first Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting will be closed," said spokeswoman Richel Albright.
Isn't such a body subject to democratic openness?
"The Interagency Council on Homelessness is not subject to open meetings since it is not a governing body and is not making recommendations to a governing body," Albright said.
According to state law 8-44-102, a governing, public body consists of two or more members with power to make decisions or recommendations to a public body or administration.
The Homelessness Council has plenty of members. (Nearly 30, including police chiefs, CEOs and nonprofit heads.)
And Berke created the council in an executive order packed with the most muscular of verbs. Its job is to "create" and "report" and "update" and "establish" and "coordinate" and "improve."
"To unite our community around an effective strategy to end homelessness," the order reads.
The council's budget could be as big as $1 million.
The council will hire a consultant, who will help guide and shape policy around homelessness, which also means policy around public space and downtown property and First Amendment freedoms.
So either Berke created a lame-duck council with only the pretense of power, or the closed-door May 8 meeting violated state law.
Consider this, as well:
If the council can't make recommendations to a governing body — Albright's words — then why was it even created?
Why would City Hall keep such a meeting private?
How much is City Hall considering work of the Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness, a goldmine of data and policy created from prior administrations?
What role is the Regional Homeless Coalition playing?
These questions — and more — beg for answers.
But City Hall — after initially promising interviews — isn't talking.
When asked for an on-record interview back in May, shortly after the inaugural meeting, City Hall declined.
"We prefer a conversation on background," said Tyler Yount, director of special projects for the city.
City Hall did offer minutes from the meeting.
But they are vague, with only the barest of details. They don't include people present. Or what folks said. Or really anything of substance. (See for yourself at connect.chattanooga.gov/cich).
City Hall took video of the meeting, but, apparently, the audio didn't work.
City Hall published the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting, but it's sort of an entry-level, superficial sketch on Chattanooga homelessness, which suggests that, in this opening meeting, the city gathered area experts, who then told each other what they were doing, which is something they already know.
And something they've already done before.
Yes, there are other issues besides homelessness to consider, especially this week, with Election Day four days away.
And yes, if the city can create a legitimate council that actually works, then bravo. Bravo a thousand times.
But homelessness — affecting the least of those in our city — is often a good barometer for how other flashier and more front-page issues are handled.
The way you do one thing can represent all things.
Open and transparent.
Or closed and secret.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.