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City Council moves to limit public comment

Ald. Carrie Austin during the Chicago City Council meeting.

Ald. Carrie Austin | Sun-Times file photo

Members of the public who wish to unload on Chicago aldermen during City Council committee meetings will have to hold their fire just a bit. Or at the very least, be a little less long-winded.

On Wednesday, a divided Rules Committee, then the full City Council agreed to amend the Council’s Rules of Procedure to impose a 3-minute time limit on public testimony.

The new rule states that public participants must be physically present and “refrain from using profane language or obscene conduct” and refrain from making “irrelevant, repetitious or disruptive comments.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) wanted to make the new rule even tougher, by limiting speakers to 3 minutes for an entire committee meeting instead of 3 minutes per item.

But he ultimately agreed to withdraw that motion after Ald. John Arena (45th) warned of the “chilling effect” that would have on public input.

“When we initiate rules that are that level of draconian, in my view, we create a chilling effect to the public. We’re telling you, `We don’t want to hear from you,’ ” Arena said.

“In a Finance Committee meeting, when you might have 20 items on the agenda with complexity, you’re gonna say 3 minutes? In the general public and in the media’s eyes, we’re being scrutinized in how we’re telling people, ‘Don’t come to this chamber and don’t speak your mind,’ ” he said. “Three minutes is plenty of time to speak on an item. But not on an entire committee meeting that might have multiple issues of substance where a member of the public might want to speak on more than one item.”

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th), who has to sit through more of the public testimony than almost any committee chairman, with the exception of Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th), opposed the Hopkins rule.

“He, as a citizen, has the right to speak on any item. Each item,” she said.

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) argued in favor of the stricter rule. And he made no apologies for it.

“Talk about taxpayer money and the waste of time that’s going on and the waste of time of aldermen that’s going on. Aggregate that over a year,” Moreno said.

“We’re not shutting the community out. In fact, our rules are very liberal. Try to go speak at a CPS board meeting. There are sign-up regulations. [At City Hall], people can just walk in this building and sign a pink slip . . . . These are very commonsense rules to stop wasting money and time on things that are not pertinent to the issue at hand,” he said.

The new rules are primarily aimed at 74-year-old George Blakemore, a former Chicago Public School teacher-turned-Maxwell Street merchant who has made a career out of giving Chicago aldermen a piece of his mind.

The public may not know him. But Blakemore is their self-declared representative at City Council meetings. No matter what the subject is, Blakemore has an opinion on it. He often accuses aldermen of being rubber stamps, sometimes using even more insulting language than that.

Last week, Blakemore unloaded on aldermen for trying muzzle him.

“Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, the City Council tacked $25 million onto a previously approved $1.25 billion borrowing to bankroll the purchase of 600 new police vehicles for the 970 new officers Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to hire over the next two years.

The earlier borrowing included $40 million for new vehicles of all kinds, including garbage trucks, snowplows and street sweepers. But the $7 million worth of police vehicles included in that prior purchase will not be enough to serve the new officers.

That’s why Emanuel needed authority to add an additional $25 million to the city’s mountain of debt.

Still no word on how the mayor plans to deliver on his promise to fill 471 police vacancies, keep pace with rising attrition, and still hire enough police officers to add 516 patrol officers, 92 field training officers, 112 sergeants, 50 lieutenants and 200 detectives to raise an abysmal clearance rate for homicides and shootings.

At a first-year cost of $138,000 per officer — including salary, benefits and supervision — the 970 additional officers carry a two-year cost of $133.8 million.