As Chicago’s City Commissions Start Meeting in Person Again, Future of Online Access in Doubt

For the first time in more than three years, all city boards and commissions are once again meeting in person to handle the city’s business — putting an end to the virtual meetings that became a hallmark of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there are no rules ensuring those meetings will continue to be streamed online or allow members of the public to weigh in virtually, either by Zoom or by phone – putting at risk Chicagoans’ ability to keep tabs on their government with a simple click of a button.

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“This would be a massive step backward in transparency and equity,” said David Greising, CEO of the Better Government Association, a group that advocates for government accountability.

When Gov. J.B. Pritzker ended the public health emergency on May 11 that had been in place since March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19, boards and commissions across the state could no longer meet virtually, as rules that allowed them to meet via Zoom or other teleconferencing platforms expired. 

“This was a great thing from the pandemic,” Greising said. “The great revelation of the pandemic was that people actually cared what their governments were doing.”

The state’s Open Meetings Act requires officials to handle the public’s business in public, with limited exceptions designed to apply to litigation and personnel issues.

State law does not require cities to livestream public meetings. However, the Chicago City Council requires all of its meetings, as well as meetings of its committees, to be livestreamed, as they have been since 2019.

During the pandemic, the City Council amended those rules to allow members of the public to participate in public comment via Zoom or by phone during in-person City Council meetings.

In May, the City Council approved a new set of rules that allow alderpeople to participate in meetings remotely in the event they are ill, away on official business or experiencing a family emergency. Ald. Lamont Robinson (4th Ward) was the first City Council member to use that provision to vote during a meeting of the City Council’s Budget Committee on May 30.

“There should be one standard for all city boards and commissions,” Greising said.

All commissions operated by the Department of Planning and Development will be livestreamed as a “courtesy” to Chicagoans as part of officials’ commitment to transparency, as long as they take place in a properly equipped room, said Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesperson for the department.

However, those commissions will only accept public testimony and comment from those attending the meeting in person, not virtually, Strazzabosco said.

Meeting in person on Thursday for the first time since February 2020, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks tackled a packed agenda, green lighting a tax break for a plan to transform a historic building on the North Side into a steakhouse and making a final recommendation that the Warehouse, the birthplace of House music, become an official city landmark.

But if Chicagoans busy with work and school or other obligations had hoped to log on to the meeting and keep track of the debate, they would have been out of luck. 

The Chicago Commission on Landmarks meets on Thursday, June 8, 2023, in a nearly empty Council Chambers at Chicago City Hall. (Heather Cherone/WTTW News)The Chicago Commission on Landmarks meets on Thursday, June 8, 2023, in a nearly empty Council Chambers at Chicago City Hall. (Heather Cherone/WTTW News)

Despite meeting in the City Council’s chambers where the City Council’s meetings are regularly streamed online, the only Chicagoans able to witness the members of the Landmarks Commission debate the proposals were the handful of people there in person.

“Not everybody can go downtown and take the time out of their day,” Greising said. “But people have huge stakes in these decisions. And we know people will Zoom in.”

The Landmarks Commission meeting was not livestreamed because it was scheduled to take place in an 11th floor City Hall meeting room that is not equipped with audio and visual equipment, Strazzabosco said, and moved to the Council Chambers only at the last minute.

The city’s Community Development Commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday and the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals is set to meet Friday. Nothing on the required public notices advertising those public meetings indicates they will be livestreamed.

However, the four-hour meeting of the city’s Plan Commission on May 18 was livestreamed, and a recording of the meeting is available on the Planning Department’s You Tube page, which was set up during the pandemic. The Plan Commission is set to met again on Thursday, and the commission’s website promises a livestream will be available.

By contrast, the Chicago Board of Ethics voted unanimously to “continue to make our meetings available to our fellow Chicagoans both in person and through our streaming platform, even though it is not required legally,” according to a joint statement from Board Chair William Conlon and Executive Director Steve Berlin.

The Ethics Board typically meets on the third Monday of the month in its fifth-floor offices at 740 N. Sedgwick St.

“This decision was an easy one,” Conlon and Berlin said. “We are a public board, responsible to the residents of Chicago; public participation is a core ingredient of meaningful democratic government. Our public meetings are intended to provide information to all members of the public, and enable the public, in turn, to inform and educate us on matters of concern to them.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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