Illinois’ Open Meetings Act states that “people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their [government’s] business.” Also included in the Open Meetings Act is the provision that “Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.” Taxpayers’ ability to know what their government is doing and have an active role in how they are being governed is the foundation for our government systems and clearly what open meetings acts try to codify.
Last year, a court ruled that Chicago finally had to lift the city’s ban on the public’s ability to comment during full City Council meetings. In Chicago’s apparent kneejerk reaction against any good government reform, the city initially fought the court trying to give citizens a voice in their government but later acquiesced and put in place extremely limiting rules for public comment.
Now, each month at every full City Council meeting, only 10 people are allowed to speak for three minutes each before aldermen spend hours giving speeches and declarations about any topic they choose.
Chicago could be a leader in giving taxpayers a legitimate voice in their city government and show cities nationwide how to install good government reforms.
Across the country, many cities have more robust public comment laws, while some cities have even more limiting restrictions. How many other large cities operate and restrict public comment in City Council meetings is described below:
- Houston—Houston holds City Council meetings Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday mornings. The Tuesday session is devoted entirely to public comments, while the Wednesday session is for consideration and approval of agenda items. The public has up to three minutes each to address council and the session is up to three hours long, so typically all citizens are heard.
- Philadelphia—Philadelphia’s City Council gives the public three minutes each to speak about bills or resolutions that are on the council’s calendar that day. Public testimony is allowed at committee meetings and full council meetings. There is no set time limit for public comment, which is decided at the discretion of the council president.
- Washington D.C.—D.C.’s City Council holds public hearings and roundtables for considered legislation, because public comment is not allowed at committee or council meetings. Each person gets three to four minutes to testify at these public hearings, but there is no time limit for how long the hearings will go. Everyone gets a chance to speak. The body provides an “Easy Guide to Testifying Before the Council.” In their actual Committee of the Whole meetings, there is no slot for public comment.
- San Francisco—The legislative body of San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors, allows public testimony at committee meetings in which ordinances and resolutions are discussed. At the beginning of each item or public comment, the chair allots a set and equal amount of time to each speaker (usually three minutes). However, the full board meeting does not hold public hearings unless a new item is introduced that the public did not get a chance to speak on.
- Los Angeles—Los Angeles’ City Council allows two forms of public comment: general public comment and agenda item public comment. At the beginning of each regular meeting, the council provides a minimum of 10 minutes for general public comment, giving each individual one minute to address the council on any issue. Public comment for agenda items is an opportunity for the public to address the council on each agenda item before or during consideration of the item, unless a council committee previously provided the opportunity for comment and the item did not substantially change. Each person is given up to three minutes to address council, and a cumulative total of 20 minutes is given for public testimony.
- New York City—New York City’s council holds public hearings and has rules that certain forms of legislation cannot be passed without a public hearing/public testimony. There is no set time for public comment, but public hearings generally go for an hour and a half. There is no public comment at full council meetings.
- Seattle—Public comment at Seattle’s committee meetings is limited to 20 minutes, three minutes per speaker, for items listed on the meeting’s agenda. However, public comment is not allowed at special full council or council briefing meetings.
- Atlanta—Atlanta allows remarks by the public in full council meetings. Each speaker has no more than 16 minutes to speak. Council members are actively trying to decrease this amount of time.
- Boston—Boston’s City Council appears to lack explicit guidelines for public comment; however, certain committee meetings indicate in their public notices whether public testimony is allowed. Public testimony seems to be allowed only in committee meetings, not full City Council meetings.