This clock on the wall at Chicago City Council meetings is used to keep each speaker during the public-comment session to the three-minute time limit. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen get an earful about public participation rules

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SHARE Chicago aldermen get an earful about public participation rules

Limiting public participation at City Council meetings to 3 minutes a person and 30 minutes overall is “grossly inadequate” and “invites more litigation,” aldermen were warned Wednesday.

After getting an earful about the ground rules they’ve established for continuing to give the public their say, the City Council’s Rules Committee put off a vote on the ordinance until the morning of the June 28 Council meeting.

It wasn’t the complaints or threat of another lawsuit that forced the delay. It was the simple fact that Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) didn’t have a quorum and needed one on an ordinance as controversial as this.

Harris insisted there would be “no changes,” in spite of the barrage of complaints unleashed Wednesday.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, agreed the ordinance would not be changed.

“We’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve got to do something. This is an opportunity to see if a judge thinks this is going to work, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll do something else,” O’Connor said.

You have to take into account that our committee structures have significant public input as well and unlimited opportunities to talk. If you combine the two there’s pretty broad opportunity for public comment,” he said.

Andy Thayer, who filed the lawsuit that forced the issue, didn’t buy it, saying the proposed rule changes “are totally inadequate and just invite further litigation.”

The proposal limits public participation to 30 minutes per meeting and 3 minutes per speaker.

A digital countdown clock, which will make certain of it, is already on the wall in the council chambers. Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) called it “kind of tacky.” Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine acknowledged the clock does “have an NBA quality.”

Thayer argued that “at least an hour” is needed to ensure “adequate” public input. Instead, the public gets half of that time — enough to let “as few as 10 people speak at a City Council meeting in a city of 2.7 million people,” Thayer said.

“In the last two Council meetings in April and May, the city spent as much as 2.5 hours on purely honorary resolutions that could have been used by citizen participation,” he said.

Thayer also pointed to the ban on “profane, obscene or disruptive” comments and the provision requiring members of the public to confine their comments to legislation on the agenda.

“That has been used to censor peoples’ comments in committee meetings when people brought up in a Zoning Committee meeting the fact that campaign contributions to aldermen were influencing legislation,” he said.

Michael Graham, an attorney for the watchdog group “Project Six,” agreed the “grossly inadequate” 30-minute limit has “no relationship” to the hundreds of pieces of legislation up for a vote at a typical City Council meeting.

George Blakemore, who makes a career out of testifying at City Council committee hearings, unloaded on aldermen — again.

“Do you hate the public? That’s a hate crime,” Blakemore said of the 30-minute limit. “You serve us. We don’t serve you. … If you don’t want to serve the public, resign. Who do you think you are?”

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