I have never been elected to public office, but I imagine there is a moment in the lives of all elected politicians when one's individual will and agenda come into conflict with the will and agenda of the people you were elected to serve.
These moments are not to be taken lightly, for wrapped up in them are all the big players: ego, desire, humility and saving face, the strength to apologize or repent or a bullheaded selfishness that can turn irreparably ruinous.
The moment becomes a crossroads.
Such a crossroads is exactly where the Chattanooga City Council finds itself.
Months ago, it began a redistricting process required by law to remap the city's nine districts based on new census information. Last Tuesday, just one week before the council votes on the new map on April 5, the redistricting committee opened up for its one and only public input session. Most of the committee's work has reportedly been done out of sight.
"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.
Turner and a line of distinguished Chattanoogans spoke up, all in opposition to the Council's process.
— "This appears to be a lack of transparency on the part of the city council," Dr. Everlena Holmes said. "And this practice also creates a lack of public trust."
— "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," said Helen Burns Sharp, founder of Accountability for Taxpayer Money. "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."
— "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," said Eric Atkins of the Unity Group.
When those respected people speak in such ways, it becomes abundantly obvious that the council now has a choice.
Does it pause, swallow its pride and begin again its process more aligned with the people's will?
Or does it continue full-steam ahead, unwilling to bend or change?
"Public input is not required by state law or the charter," said Dr. Carol Berz, chairwoman of the redistricting committee. "We, however, decided that we wanted a lot of public input, and we started out with each of our 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."
Many don't believe her; they say Tuesday's input session was a charade. Additionally, there are claims the council has violated state law, holding meetings in a way that ran in opposition to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. Berz told the newspaper's Logan Hullinger that committee members met without public notice or access, yet said the meetings were simply part of procedural legalities.
"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," said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, in an email to Hullinger.
Many ask: What's the rush? The new map isn't due until 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," Turner said.
Berz said the committee will consider this at a strategic planning meeting on Tuesday at 2 p.m. The proposed districts can be found online at bit.ly/Chatt-redistricting.
Let's assume Berz, a longtime public servant, and the rest of the committee have the purest of intentions and followed every letter of the law. You still have a groundswell of esteemed citizens declaring otherwise.
Thinking of Berz: I saw her in October, speaking at the Rev. Paul McDaniel's funeral.
What would he tell her to do?
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.