Lightfoot’s pandemic conference calls with aldermen violated Open Meetings Act, state attorney general’s office says

Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine had defended the calls, saying they did not violate the Open Meetings Act because there was “no legislative aspect whatsoever” and aldermen were acting not as legislator but as “community-based first-responders.”

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Chicago City Hall

Conference calls with the mayor and aldermen violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, the Illinois Attorney General’s office has ruled.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot violated the Open Meetings Act by hosting conference calls with aldermen in the early days of the shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the Illinois Attorney General’s office has concluded.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine had argued the conference calls Lightfoot and top aides held with aldermen on March 26, March 30, April 6 and May 8 did not violate the Open Meetings Act because aldermen were acting as “community-based first responders” and no “legislative deliberation or action” took place.

“It was essential to disseminate public safety-related information as widely as possible to other city officers who could assist in implementing disaster relief and mitigation,” Levine wrote June 26 in response to a complaint filed with the Attorney General’s office by Pro Publica reporter Mick Dumke.

“These calls had no legislative aspect whatsoever. Rather, the sole purpose was to convey information regarding the city’s pandemic response to help the aldermen continue to serve effectively in the field as community-based first responders.”

In a letter dated Sept, 11, Assistant Attorney General Matt Hartman, chief of the Public Access Bureau, shot down those arguments and ruled the mayoral conference calls did, in fact, violate the Open Meetings Act.

Hartman wrote it is “undisputed that at least a majority of a quorum of the aldermen of the Council were present” on the March 26, March 30 and April 6 calls.

“The Council’s response to this office stated that no legislative items were discussed and no consensuses were reached during the gatherings. However, Section One of the Open Meetings Act provides that the public shall be given advance notice and the opportunity to attend a meeting where the public business is discussed or acted upon in any way,” Hartman wrote.

Citing summaries of the calls provided by the city, Hartman said it’s clear the purpose was to “discuss the city’s response to the pandemic and to allow aldermen to “express their thoughts and recommendations on how the response should proceed.”

“Although the mayor may have informed aldermen of certain unilateral actions that had already been taken and that the Council would not be acting upon, the city’s management of and response to a public health threat is critical public business of the city,” he wrote.

“Further, despite the Council’s assertion that nothing remotely within the legislative sphere was addressed during the calls, the Council subsequently took final action on ordinances related to the pandemic. Therefore, the March 26, 30 and April 6 calls constituted meetings of the Council subject to requirements of the Open Meetings Act.

That means: there should have been public notice 48 hours in advance; the meetings should have been held at a time and place open to the public; minutes of the conference calls should have been maintained and made available upon request; and there should have been an opportunity for public comment.

Dumke’s complaint was filed before Lightfoot held a May 31 phone call with aldermen upset about looting and mayhem in their wards that famously included a profane exchange between Lightfoot and Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), one of the mayor’s most outspoken City Council critics.

During that May 31 call, Lightfoot unloaded on Lopez when he dared to accuse her of being caught flat-footed by the first round of looting that spread into South and West Side neighborhoods after downtown was belatedly sealed off.

On June 10, Lightfoot accused Lopez of “illegally” taping the May 31 phone call and “leaking,” only that part of the 90-minute call including the profane exchange.

“These are tough and difficult times. We ought to be able to have candid conversations. There were a lot of incredible emotions that were shared on that call by fellow aldermen. Now, aldermen don’t feel secure or safe coming together with their colleagues because of one individual who decided to illegally tape a conversation that was intended to be a private conversation among all of us. Shame on them. Shame on him,” the mayor said then, without mentioning Lopez by name.

Ever since the Lopez controversy, the mayor has been careful to hold conference calls and Zoom meetings, talking only with small groups of aldermen to avoid violating the Open Meetings Act.

A lawsuit on the issue filed by the Better Government Association is pending.

Law Department spokesperson Kathleen Fieweger responded to the ruling with a statement: “Consistent with our view that the city acted properly in these instances, and with due regard for the recent PAC determination and applicable law, the city will continue to take action as needed to preserve public safety on a case-by-case basis.”

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