In March, the public’s voice got the chance to be heard in Chicago’s City Hall.
The City has declared that it will accept a Cook County judge’s ruling that the City Council must allow public comment at full council meetings and give Chicagoans a chance to question their elected officials or comment on city policy.
Chicagoans were previously allowed to make comments only during city committee meetings. Committee meetings have significantly lower attendance and much less coverage in the media than full City Council meetings.
This is an important win for Chicagoans concerned about having a responsive and transparent city government.
While the specifics of how people will be allowed to make comments have not been set yet, people will now have a monthly opportunity to directly question aldermen and comment on legislation being debated and voted on during the City’s most publicized government meetings.
Why does all this matter?
The public’s voice is a necessary part of a responsible and transparent government for an important reason: It works.
In late 2016, a former congressional staffer shared on Twitter the most effective ways to get the attention of an elected official from an insider’s point of view. The verdict? Talking to an elected official or staffer directly is the best way to make sure that an idea, question or concern makes it through the monsoon of emails and social media comments that are delivered to government offices.
Up until now, City Council was able to pass tax hikes, fee increases and law changes with little input from taxpayers. Short notice time for city meetings, unclear agendas and committee meetings where few aldermen actually show up made it easy for aldermen to pass controversial (and expensive) measures without being challenged.
The public being able to make comments during the monthly meeting of the entire City Council is one of the easiest ways for a taxpayer to have a direct connection to elected officials and hold them accountable.
Public comment during City Council meetings is also one of the best ways for the public’s voice to be heard during one of the most heavily publicized meetings of Chicago city government.
Every major media outlet of the city reports on the debate and votes of each monthly City Council meeting. For aldermen and a mayor that are notoriously concerned with their public image, being challenged by their constituents on the record and in the public eye is a platform not easily ignored.
While some aldermen have warned against limiting public comments—Alderman John Arena (45th Ward) described rules limiting public comments as “draconian”—other city aldermen seemingly welcome limiting the voice of Chicago taxpayers.
Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) described how little he values listening to his constituents during committee meetings of the City Council: “Talk about taxpayer money and the waste of time that’s going on and the waste of time of aldermen that’s going on.”
While there is a possibility of constituent comments taking up more time during council meetings, if “wasting time” is what aldermen are concerned about, there are plenty of ways to streamline government meetings.
One possibility is to cut down on back-patting, congratulatory speeches and declarations during full council meetings. City Council regularly spends more than an hour during each full council meeting giving ceremonial speeches to retiring public officials, sports teams or anyone an alderman or the mayor deems deserving of the public’s time.
Andy Thayer, the plaintiff that brought the Open Meetings Act lawsuit against the city, declared, “They [council members] waste tons of time at every City Council meeting with all sorts of honorary things they could do in other settings.”
The City also passes hundreds of honorary and ceremonial resolutions that take up a significant portion of each monthly meeting. Many residents paying thousands more in Chicago’s perennially increasing taxes and fees would probably agree that Chicago’s leaders listening to their constituents is a better use of time than passing such insignificant resolutions as:
- R2017-184: “Congratulations extended to Saint Edward’s Eighth Grade Boys Basketball Team on winning 2017 Northwest Catholic Conference League Championship”
- R2017-253: “Congratulations extended to Chicago Chess Champions and Renaissance Knights Chess 1 Foundation”
- R2017-144: “Congratulations to The Lodge Tavern on 60th anniversary”
- R2017-80: “Declaration of February 14, 2017, as ‘Food Checkout Day’ in Chicago”
- R2016-993: “Congratulations extended to Scarlett Marie Mayerbock on baptism”
- R2016-846: “Declaration of November 5, 2016, as ‘Irish Rugby Day’ in Chicago”
Regular citizens having a voice in their government is an important right that this country was founded on and it is something that has helped bring justice and transparency to how Chicago is governed.
A politician from the Windy City accusing Chicago taxpayers of wasting their time takes gall. But listening to people’s needs and concerns and addressing them head on takes bravery. Chicago’s City Hall could use some more bravery.