In an unprecedented step, visitors to the City Council meetings are now being directed to sit in the glass enclosed visitor area on the third floor. This restricts public access to the City Council and is a wrongheaded move.
A citizen who wishes to speak during the public comment session must either do so via remote, or when in person in the enclosed area on the third floor. This area is quite unlike the open public area on the second floor behind the Aldermen, where the public can hear debate and see more of the action that takes place on the council floor.
By our Council rules, and those every elected body follows through Robert's Rules of Order, those who engage in disorderly conduct, use profane language or obscene gestures, or otherwise disturb the peace and order of proceedings can be asked to cease such behavior. Those who do not adhere to the rules can also be removed. People can attend the meetings, they can listen, and they can speak during public comments, but have to do it with a sense of decorum.
The recent move by the Sergeant at Arms of the Rules Committee was done in response to the lack of decorum and what they cited as a need for safety. Over the past few months, the public comment period has become extremely disorderly, with abusive language used frequently. It is up to the presiding officer to enforce the rule of order, as it is the rule of law.
I've served with three previous mayors: Lightfoot, Emanuel, and Daley. Each Administration and our Councils dealt with heated crowds or debates and had to clear rooms or expel unruly citizens who went beyond the bounds of decorum. In order to better facilitate public participation, we’ve made rule changes over the years, including instituting a 3 minute public comment period in 2016 - after public debate.
This latest action however, is the first time steps have been taken by a Mayor to automatically create a division or “ban” of citizens from the 2nd floor council seating without public debate and input of the full City Council.
Speaking to former Alderman David Orr about this issue, he recalled that during the heated Council Wars, members of the public had been removed by the Sergeant at Arms or police officers to maintain peace, but the public was never banished to the second floor by Mayor Washington.
Taking the unprecedented step of completely prohibiting the public from the second floor without an “invitation” from the mayor or an alderman is unethical, and not democratic. It removes accountability and transparency the public needs to have of the elected body of the City Council, city officials, and the Mayor.
The Chicago chapter of the ACLU weighed in on this new policy saying “any changes to policy and procedures should be undertaken only with public input and due deliberation.” While the Better Government Association is looking into the legality of such a move, they also object to “any division of public seating into invitation-only and general public sections” in the Council.
I believe that public comments, public officials, and open meetings should adhere to decorum so that everyone speaking should have an opportunity to be heard with respect and to see our democracy work for them. We could set out those rules in a more visible manner at the Council, and discuss why rules are necessary.
We may eventually debate this issue, but sometimes it is obvious that such a move, in the long term, would be detrimental to the public and their participation in our democracy. I don't think we should divide the public, and will work to make sure we continue to allow for public participation, accountability, and transparency that our City clearly needs.