Judge rules City Council violated Open Meetings Act

Flickr | Beth Cortez-Neavel

SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - The Chicago City Council twice violated the Open Meetings Act over the summer when activists were denied a chance to publicly comment on proposed legislation, a Cook County judge ruled Tuesday.

Circuit Judge Diane J. Larsen ordered the council “to establish and record rules allowing public comments at full City Council meetings,” the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

Larsen cited a 2013 Illinois Appellate Court case when she ruled that the City Council violated Section 2.06(g) of the Open Meetings Act, entitled “Right to Speak.”

The section provides that “Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.”

“Plaintiffs have shown [the] City Council violated Section 2.06(g) of the Act by not establishing and recording rules for public comment at full City Council meetings,” Larsen wrote.

In an emailed statement Tuesday night, Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, said the city is “considering all our legal options and will be consulting with the City Council regarding our next steps.”

“We are disappointed and respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling, as it is contrary to the language and the intent of the Open Meetings Act,” McCaffrey said. “The City Council already provides a robust system of public comment through its committee meetings, and taking additional comments at the full City Council meeting is duplicative and unnecessary.”

In two weeks, the city will present the court with its proposed time frame and procedure for the new public comment rules.

Reached Tuesday evening, activist Andy Thayer said the judge’s order was “a slam dunk for our side.”

“I think what makes this so important is not just the issue that prompted our attending, but, frankly, the fact that this city has pushed through one aggressive measure after another,” Thayer said. “This is a victory for anyone who has a beef with City Hall.”

The lawsuit was filed last July by Thayer and Rick Garcia after both claimed they were barred from council chambers during a meeting.

Thayer alleged that when he tried to attend the City Council meeting on May 18, despite being one of the first in line to enter council chambers, he and several others were not allowed in, even after the meeting had started.

During that meeting, the council discussed a bill to spend $16 million on a high-rise development in Uptown, which Thayer said “would be within yards of many homeless sleeping underneath Lake Shore Drive viaducts who desperately need affordable housing alternatives.”

Thayer alleged that not a single member of the public was allowed into the meeting until 11 a.m. Once inside, he saw empty seats in the council chambers that were marked “reserved.”

There was no opportunity for public comment, the suit stated.

At the next meeting, on June 22, Garcia alleged that no members of the public were allowed in the chambers or in the third-floor gallery, which was barred by police.

“No members of the public waiting in line were allowed in, even when people in the council chambers left,” the suit stated.

Again, there was no time designated for public comment.

The suit called for any actions taken at both meetings to be declared void. However, Larsen wrote that some of the allegations that the City Council held and will continue to hold closed meetings contained “disputed issues of fact and questions of reasonableness.”

In her order on Tuesday order, Larsen did not say any council actions should be voided.

During the May meeting, the City Council agreed to revised density bonuses that will let developers build bigger and taller projects to generate millions to rebuild long-ignored neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.

During the June meeting, the council approved a change to the city’s human rights ordinance that would allow transgender people to use whichever public restroom corresponded to their gender identity.