New restrictions on where members of the public can sit during meetings of the Chicago City Council are “inequitable and likely illegal,” the president of the Better Government Association warned Mayor Brandon Johnson in a letter released Monday.
David Greising, the president of the group that advocates for government accountability, said BGA representatives were denied access to the main, second-floor gallery in the Council Chambers after a series of out-of-control meetings prompted city officials to impose new limits on public access at City Hall. Instead, they were forced to observe the meeting from the glassed-in gallery on the third floor, Greising wrote.
“These denials mark a change in policy, negatively affect access to meetings of this public body, and are an inequitable and likely illegal departure from past practice,” Greising wrote to Johnson and Rules Committee Chair Ald. Michelle Harris, who is in charge of security in the chambers.
Unless Johnson changes course, he could become the third consecutive mayor to be sued by the BGA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary “of fighting corruption, waste, secrecy and inequity by shining a spotlight on the workings of government in Illinois” in June.
Members of the City Council have been repeatedly heckled and harassed by members of the public, many of whom have made explicitly racist statements while debating efforts by the city to care for the more than 23,400 migrants sent to Chicago on buses paid for by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
As the intense debate over the migrant crisis escalated, Johnson broke from the pattern set by former Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, who frequently had people they deemed disruptive removed from the chambers, even if they had not interrupted the meeting.
A former organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union who protested at City Hall, Johnson told reporters that Chicagoans had a right to express their political opinions during meetings and did not want to remove individuals from the chambers under most circumstances.
Harris adjourned a November meeting of the Rules Committee after losing control of the session, with many members of the public refusing orders from her staff to refrain from outbursts during a debate over whether Chicago voters will be asked whether the city should remain a sanctuary city in March.
During another meeting, focused on a debate over a nonbinding resolution that condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel, Johnson ordered the second-floor gallery cleared of members of the public in a nearly unprecedented move.
Harris did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News, and her staff has not published the new rules, which have not been ratified by a vote of the Chicago City Council.
That may be a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which requires rules for access to be published — and approved by a public vote. Any action taken at a meeting deemed to be illegal under that law could be invalidated, Greising warned.
Ronnie Reese, a spokesperson for Johnson said the rules are “a work in progress, and we expect the council will continue to work collectively to strike the right balance.”
“These protocols were developed by the City Council rules chair and sergeant-at-arms after listening to members of the council and hearing their concerns about personal safety and repeated disruptions of council proceedings that impeded the work of the body,” Harris said. “We recognize the council’s efforts to preserve its ability to perform its sworn duties and uphold the sacred right of public participation in legislative proceedings.”
The new rules would make permanent some of the restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing requirements forced some alderpeople to sit in the main gallery. Members of the public were restricted to the third-floor gallery, where they had an obstructed view of the proceedings.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois echoed the BGA’s call for Johnson to reverse course.
“In an era where the city is wrestling with contentious issues that raise complicated emotions for many, City Council can enforce rules for decorum against those who violate such rules — but should not engage in collective punishment against all residents because of a single meeting or the actions of a few,” said spokesperson Ed Yohnka.
Limiting members of the public to the third floor “offers, at best, second-class status and degrades public access to meetings of this vitally important public body,” Greising wrote. “Lumping law-abiding and responsible citizens in with the disruptors, and clearing them from the chamber, denies their right to see their government at work.”
The next meeting of the full City Council is scheduled for Dec. 13.
“An open and free society relies on the ability of citizens to witness democracy in action,” Greising wrote, offering the BGA’s assistance in crafting new rules to address the frequent disruptions.
The BGA has frequently sued the city over issues of transparency and good governance.
The group’s most recent suit prompted Lightfoot to stop holding conference calls with a majority of the City Council. The BGA challenged those calls, which started at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued during the unrest that erupted after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, as violations of the state’s open meeting act.
In addition, the BGA sued Emanuel over his use of a private email account to conduct city business, forcing the former mayor to make those emails available to the public through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The new rules for public access to the City Council chambers were first reported by WBEZ.