published Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Gerber: New council, new start

Let's take the new members of the Chattanooga City Council at their word.

Seven of the nine-member council are newly elected and will be sworn in Monday. Some say they've been meeting to get to know each other and break bread. But they say they haven't discussed official business.

Their critics -- yup, they're not even officially in office and already critics are mudslinging -- say they've been meeting to make crucial decisions, like who the chairperson and vice chairperson will be. (Word has it Yusuf Hakeem and Chip Henderson are favorites, respectively. But take that with a grain of salt because it's one of several reports swirling).

Let's hope the new members did not start making decisions about public policy and appointments before they took office. While that may not violate the state's open meeting laws, because they're not yet city officials, it would suggest they're already acting like the insiders they claimed not to be during the campaign.

Most of the newly elected council members promised on the campaign trail to do business differently, and to bring change. They positioned themselves as outsiders, reformers and budget hawks. Some used the buzzwords often associated with change -- transparency, open government, accountability.

After they're sworn in, though, it will quickly be apparent whether the new council members meant what they said when they knocked on doors and shook hands and asked for votes. It'll also be apparent whether the council will be transparent and whether its members will think for themselves or be rubber-stampers.

Several other local bodies -- Hamilton County's commission and school board and Erlanger Medical Center's board of trustees -- all too often vote on important issues with little public discussion. The City Council has been different. It's been a body where issues actually were discussed and debated in public, where members articulated the merits or pitfalls of an issue, where members weren't afraid to disagree with each other. In other words, it has functioned like the legislative branch it was designed to be and not just a rubber stamp for the mayor.

What the council decides should matter to every resident. Its members' votes can determine how much you pay in taxes, what parks or rec centers remain open, the hours of the public library.

How the council decides these things -- and how open council members are about why they make the decisions they do -- should matter, too. It's an issue of integrity. Residents and voters deserve good, open government. They should have plenty of information to decide how well the council is doing its job. Do residents feel that council members are listening to them, taking their opinions into account or do they feel ignored and sidelined?

The council will not make everyone happy -- that's not its job -- but residents ought to be able to believe that they are being heard, even if the outcome doesn't always fall in their favor.

This is a moment of big change for City Hall. Come Monday, the city will be governed by a new mayor and a mostly new council, with a bevy of new city administrators on the way, too.

Incoming Mayor Andy Berke has already let go of 18 of 21 top officials who served under Mayor Ron Littlefield. Berke has made it clear he has goals, even if he hasn't outlined them in great detail. He'll need the council to achieve many of those goals.

The council and mayor should work together, but the council shouldn't lose sight of its role as a key element in the balance of power, the legislative versus the executive.

Members should not forget their promises of transparency, should not forget to think for themselves and should not forget who put them in office. If they do, the next round of elections could prove equally interesting.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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