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Rules outlined for public participation at City Council meetings

The Chicago City Council | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s allies on Wednesday spelled out the rules that will govern public participation at City Council meetings.

Members of the general public will have up to three minutes to air their views on legislation up for a vote that day, under the rules proposed by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and other powerful committee chairmen.

The public comments would occur after the roll call and invocation and before official business is conducted. Before unloading on aldermen, members of the public would have to give their names to the sergeant-at–arms. They would also have to refrain from using profanity.

There would be a 30-minute time limit on public comments during the annual meeting when the council holds a public hearing on the city budget.

Earlier this year, Emanuel reversed himself and decided not to appeal a court ruling forcing public participation at City Council meetings.

The abrupt about-face came just weeks after Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey had declared the mayor’s intention to appeal Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Larsen’s ruling.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and believe it is contrary to the language and the intent of the Open Meetings Act,” McCaffrey said then.

“The City Council already provides a robust system of public comment through its committee meetings, and taking additional comments at the full City Council meeting is duplicative and unnecessary.”

That prompted an angry reaction from plaintiff Andy Thayer. He called the notice of appeal further evidence of Emanuel’s aversion to transparency.

“It’s throwing every taxpayers’ good money after bad. They should just do the right thing, rather than go nuclear on cases like this where they’re clearly in the wrong,” Thayer said then.

“They waste tons of time at every City Council meeting with all sorts of honorary things they could do in other settings. This is clearly a mechanism by which the mayor and his allies pack the chambers with people who do not oppose them so they can have the appearance of public support for deeply unpopular measures. Whether it’s phony reform of the police or one regressive tax measure after another. Or in this case, wasting money on a TIF subsidy to luxury high-rises when people are literally sleeping underneath bridge viaducts just yards away.”

At the time, Thayer noted that Emanuel spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to keep his private emails used to conduct city business from public view, only to release 2,700 of them after a judge ordered him to do so.

“This mayor seems to think that money is no object when it comes to preserving his political prerogative regardless of the consequences to the taxpayer. This is the same mayor who pledged to have the most open administration of any Chicago mayoralty in history. And he has abysmally failed at that. Let people into the meetings as the plain language of the Open Meetings Act requires.”

In December, Larsen ruled that the Chicago City Council twice violated the Open Meetings Act last summer when activists were denied a chance to publicly comment on proposed legislation.

Larsen ordered the Council “to establish and record rules allowing public comments at full City Council meetings.”

Larsen cited a 2013 Illinois Appellate Court case when she ruled that the City Council violated Section 2.06 (g) of the Open Meetings Act, entitled “Right to Speak.”

The section provides that “Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.”

“Plaintiffs have shown [the] City Council violated Section 2.06 (g) of the Act by not establishing and recording rules for public comment at full City Council meetings,” Larsen wrote.

The lawsuit was filed last July by Thayer and Rick Garcia after both claimed they were barred from council chambers during a meeting.