Have you heard the talk about talk in Chicago?
It all started with debate over how much time people can spend talking to the people elected to serve them. Once the debate began over the nature and length of public comments during Chicago City Council meetings, a giant digital countdown clock was installed in the council chambers.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, aldermen are expected to vote to include public comments at future council meetings, giving three minutes per person and no more than 30 minutes’ overall. The rule change is likely to be approved despite warnings by Andy Thayer, a resident who already has filed suit against the city for restricting public comments, that the proposed rules are “inadequate” and invite more litigation.
Thayer believes an hour of public comment at council meetings is more reasonable in a city of 2.7 million people. Thayer also takes issue with the council’s rules on order and decorum.
And he’s noted 2.5 hours were spent at the April and May council meetings on honorary resolutions that could have been spent instead on comments from taxpayers.
While a digital clock might be cutting-edge, the effort to restrict and control what people can say and how long they can spend saying it seems like a rather defensive, old-school approach to open and responsive government in the digital age.
Council members ought to take the, ahem, time to work out a solution with Thayer and other concerned parties that prevents costly litigation. Then, they ought to stop the clock, step back and look around at some other ways they can proactively open up their processes and encourage more public access and participation in city government.
Here are a few suggestions:
Cameras. We’re putting cameras on cops in Chicago; how about a few more cameras in City Hall? Streaming, posting, and airing video of committee meetings where most of the nitty-gritty work and debate on ordinances occurs seems like a logical step. Not many residents can take the time from work or school during the day to get to committee meetings, so they might want to be able to watch them later. If video is cost-prohibitive, perhaps Chicago could make audio available, as Los Angeles does.
And airing the council’s activity on local television should be a no brainer. After all, the City of Chicago Television website says its mission “is to provide greater public awareness and understanding of the government of the City of Chicago.”
Witness slips. Illinois has a system that allows for citizens to weigh in on legislation via an online witness slip program. Nine other states also use online witness slips to allow citizens to express their views on proposals and legislation discussed in committee. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin is researching the implementation a witness slip system for the county. It’s an idea retiring county Clerk David Orr has called a “common sense initiative.”
Schedule more hearings. When major topics come up, recognize them as opportunities for public input, openness and transparency, and host hearings dedicated to one worthy topic. The City Council did so when it discussed red-light cameras in 2014 and, more recently, when council members held forums in neighborhoods about police reform.
New York City does this on a regular basis, considering it part of its legislative oversight function.
Clarify and amplify. Post it and paper it. Sometimes, old-school still can rule. Start meetings by explaining what the agenda is, the expectation for scheduling, and time frames and next steps. Make available a few dozen paper copies of meeting agendas and proposed legislation and also post them online. Post transcripts of major committee hearings online and make them readily available on paper for those who ask for them.
Citizens cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of council procedures, nor do all of us have access to computers. Clear meeting scheduling and descriptions and readily available printed agendas are small steps that can build trust.
Bear witness to the witnesses. Post and make available the opening statements and testimony of expert witnesses. Digital scanners and websites make these tasks far less onerous than they once were.
From Omaha to San Diego to Meriden, Connecticut, judges have found that we, the people, have the power to talk, even stridently, to the local officials we employ to work for us. Time is on our side. Let’s make it work for us all.