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Public participation at City Council meetings begins — within limits

New countdown clock that gives public speakers 3:00 to voice their opinions at the Chicago City Council meeting. Wednesday, July 26, 2017 Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

Chicago residents finally got their individual three minutes of fame today in the City Council chambers, as a flashing digital clock on the wall counted down to zero.

At the start of the 30-minute public comment session — a City Council first — George Blakemore boomed: “This is historic — you are now allowed to speak at City Council.”

Three minutes later, the clock cut him off.

Yet most of the 11 people who spoke after him remained within the three-minute time limit, some finishing with a few seconds left.

ON THE CLOCK: Rules set for public participation at City Council meetings

Shorter comments by some speakers left room for 12 people in all to address the chamber on topics including Navy Pier funding, red light cameras and Chicago Public Schools closings.

An audience of about 70 people sat in the back of the chambers, a few periodically standing to cheer. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood in his usual spot near the front — looking away from the speakers, toward the wall.

(Told later by a reporter that he hadn’t seemed attentive, Emanuel replied: “How would you know? My back was to you.”)

Rick Garcia spoke last. He had been a plaintiff in the lawsuit that claimed the Council violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. The success of that lawsuit forced the council’s hand, leading to the 30-minute public comment session.

Garcia used his time to condemn the time limit.

“In a city of more than 2.5 million residents, allowing only 30 minutes for comments is not enough,” Garcia said. “This is a very good step in the right direction, but it certainly isn’t enough.”

But Ursula Phoenix, waiting in line to sign up to speak — the line formed an hour before the meeting started — said she appreciated the three-minute rule, since it emphasized “quality over quantity.”

“What I have to say probably won’t take a minute,” she said. “We’re here to encourage them to debate our position.”

She finished her remarks with time to spare.

Robert Rohdenburg, third in line, had attended an earlier committee meeting to argue for at least an hour of public comment, because he does not think that City Council covers certain topics, such as homelessness, enough.

Not everyone followed the rules. Some protesters interrupted the meeting with chants of “Education is a right,” and “Fight Back.”

Olivia Abrecht, a youth organizer at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, had told the Sun-Times before the meeting that the group of about 20 high school students were there to complain about cuts to the Chicago Public Schools budget.

“We’re trying to speak, and if not, we’re going to disrupt city council,” she said.

Emanuel said later he had listened to all the speakers.

“Welcome to democracy,” the mayor said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman