| by Michael Graham

After a lengthy delay, Chicago’s City Council has finally proposed the court-ordered rules to allow public comment at full City Council meetings. The proposed rules are better than nothing—but just barely. The ambiguous proposal allows rules to be manipulated and abused to potentially minimize meaningful public comment, instead of facilitating it.

Full council meetings currently do not have any opportunity for public comment. Limited public comment is allowed at committee meetings, which are sparsely attended and get less coverage in the media.

Under the new proposed rules: A 30-minute public comment period would be allowed at the beginning of full council meetings. During the comment period, members of the public would have the opportunity to speak for up to three minutes about any item appearing on the council agenda. The City Council sergeant-at-arms is tasked with devising a system for Chicagoans to request to speak during the comment period.

These proposed rules are bad for Chicagoans concerned about their government for two main reasons:

  1. A blanket 30-minute time limit is absurd, because it does not take into consideration the vast differences in the types of business the City Council is undertaking in any particular full council meeting.
  2. The proposed rules do not spell out who will be allowed to speak or how the city will choose what people are turned away. Instead, the sergeant-at-arms, an unelected and largely unaccountable position, is tasked with developing a system for accepting requests to comment.

With the myriad issues, laws, taxes and regulations debated and voted on at every month’s City Council meeting, a 30-minute limit for public input is patently inadequate. For example, at the May 24 City Council meeting when the new rules were proposed, there were 758 different pieces of business that were debated or voted on.

That number is inflated by the amount of petty business the City Council chooses to engage in—approximately 80 pieces of business dealt with congratulatory, ceremonial or honorary designations, while another 80 pieces dealt with the issuance of individual handicap parking permits—but that fact only exacerbates the problem. These items of business, minor as they may be, are fair game for the limited amount of public comment time. If an individual who has applied for a handicap parking permit wishes to use the public comment period to stress his or her need for the permit, conceivably nothing could, or should, stop them.

These rules create the possibility of a City Council meeting in which a school closing or proposed tax hike receives no public comment time, but handicapped permits and honorary street signs are discussed at length.

Additionally, there would be nothing stopping the council from simply packing one or two full council meetings a year with all the most contentious issues, thereby restricting public comment by simply overwhelming the 30-minute time limit.

While the 30-minute time limit is an insult to Chicagoans on its own, the lack of clarity surrounding how public commenters are chosen may be worse.

Is it a first-come, first-serve system? Is priority given to people directly involved in an issue? Do first-time commenters get priority over repeat commenters? Once established, can the procedure change? The proposed rules do nothing to address these, or any of the other numerous concerns over whether this process will be fair and actually reflective of public issues and opinions.

Crafting a meaningful public comment system is difficult but not impossible. With some effort and ingenuity, the Chicago City Council could set an example for how city legislatures can accommodate public input, instead of being dragged into compliance.

A good first step would be following in the footsteps of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which recently began holding a separate council meeting for honorary and ceremonial business, to give as much time as possible for policy debates and votes. The council could also try to use a transparent, internet-based registration system for comments, which would allow for the public to see who wishes to speak at any given council meeting, as well as allowing the council to determine the public comment time limit in relation to the number of people who want to comment on any given topic.

The Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics will debate and potentially pass these proposed rules to a full City Council vote will meet this Wednesday, June 21, at 9 a.m. in room 201A in City Hall. The public is allowed to attend this meeting and make comments about whether the City should be trying to limit the public’s input in their government.

There are plenty of open and fair solutions for hearing the public’s voice if the City Council is willing to look for them—what has been proposed isn’t one of them.