Chicago Officials Revise Rules Limiting Access to City Council Meetings After Warning

City Council. (WTTW News)City Council. (WTTW News)

Members of the public would have to make reservations and show government-issued identification to sit in the main, second-floor gallery in the Council Chambers during meetings of the Chicago City Council under revised rules designed to limit access to where members of the public can sit.

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The new rules, issued Thursday, came several days after the president of the Better Government Association warned Mayor Brandon Johnson that the administration’s efforts to restrict access to meetings of the City Council were “inequitable and likely illegal.”

Read the revised rules.

However, the changes are unacceptable, according to the BGA, a 100-year-old group that advocates for good government and transparency.

“The new rules violate the spirit and likely the letter” of state law and should be reversed, according to a statement from the BGA.

“In a time where important matters are being discussed, the public is entitled to open access to our government,” according to the statement. “Access rules that have been in effect for years comply with the Open Meetings Act and allow for public participation in the democratic process, in a safe and decorous environment if reasonably and professionally enforced.”

Members of the public have been denied access to the main, second-floor gallery in the Council Chambers after a series of out-of-control meetings prevented the City Council from conducting its business. Instead, people were forced to observe the meeting from the glassed-in gallery on the third floor and participate in public comment from there.

Alderpeople 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 24,400 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.

Ronnie Reese, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the revised rules were necessary because of “threats to personal safety, outbursts and repeated disruptions of proceedings that impeded the work of the Council.”

“The objective is to strike a balance between safety and decorum, and preserving the right of public participation in our legislative proceedings,” Reese said.

Johnson campaigned on a platform that vowed to expand transparency and public access to City Hall.

“Our dedication to transparency has not changed,” Reese said. “In fact, it has grown in the face of threats to our democracy which, in response, call for clear, timely and effective communication.”

The new rules designate the 70 seats in the third-floor gallery as available on a first-come, first-served basis to those who line up on the first floor of City Hall starting one hour before the City Council’s meeting is scheduled to begin. Those meetings usually take place at 10 a.m. on the third Wednesday of the month.

All public comment will take place on the third-floor gallery, one floor above where the alderpeople sit, according to the revised rules.

Seats in the main, second-floor gallery will be limited to those who are unable to climb the stairs at the entrance at the third-floor gallery or those who reserve a seat by emailing or calling the City Council’s sergeant-at-arms, who works for 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris, the chair of the City Council’s Rules Committee.

Those reservations can be made starting two weeks before the meeting and must be made at least 48 hours before the meeting by providing the names of those who plan to attend the meeting, according to the revised rules. Reservations may be made for groups of no more than 15 people, according to the revised rules.

“Requiring registration for the meeting of a public body is a highly unusual step, virtually unheard of in Illinois,” according to the BGA's statement, which called the requirement “impractical.”

Before being admitted to the meeting, everyone must show a “city, state, federal, or school-issued I.D. prior to admission,” according to the revised rules. That would appear to exclude undocumented Chicagoans who do not have government-issused identification.

Ald. Daniel LaSpata (1st Ward), an ally of the mayor, blasted the rules on social media.

“Requiring an ID to participate in democracy is something we always condemn,” LaSpata said. “To see it in Chicago is embarrassing.”

If the third-floor gallery reaches capacity, the sergeant-at-arms will allow members of the public to sit in the second-floor gallery if there are seats available, according to the revised rules.

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,” BGA President David 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 Wednesday.

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

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