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Chicagoans Would Still Be Able To Comment Virtually At Meetings After COVID-19 Subsides Under Proposal

Some aldermen said they hope there would be a change to the state’s Open Meetings Act to allow some committee meetings to operate virtually in the future.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces the creation of a civilian commission overseeing the Chicago Police Department by a vote of 36-13 during a City Council meeting on July 21, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Members of the public would still be allowed to virtually speak their minds at City Council and committee meetings even after the danger of the coronavirus pandemic subsides and meetings return to City Hall under a proposal set for a City Council vote on Tuesday.

The Committee on Committees and Rules advanced a resolution from Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) that makes permanent a temporary rule put in place at the beginning of the pandemic to allow for virtual participation.

“Remote participation has proved to be a great democratic innovation, allowing people to participate in our meetings and hearings without the inconvenience of coming down to City Hall,” Smith said ahead of the vote.

Although the measure was specifically focused on how the public can participate virtually during public comment, it opened up a discussion on whether meetings could move forward in a hybrid fashion, or fully virtual, even after Gov. J.B. Pritzker rescinds his emergency order that currently allows for virtual meetings. 

Several aldermen expressed concern that they would have to return to in-person meetings before the coronavirus pandemic ended, while others hoped there would be a change to the state’s Open Meetings Act to allow some committee meetings to operate virtually in the future.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) revealed he was currently in quarantine at his home because a family member had been exposed to the virus and asked that aldermen retain the option to attend meetings virtually.

“I know this is not for the long term, but on these case by case basis, until that vaccination is permitted for someone as young as five or six, if we could look at how that would impact us, I would appreciate it,” he said. 

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said she didn’t believe the COVID-19 safety protocols inside City Hall during City Council meetings had been followed in recent months when the body allowed aldermen to choose between in-person or remote attendance.

“They said that all of these measures were being put in…and that they were cleaning,” she said. “The fact is that they haven’t been, you know, and the clerk speaks and then someone else speaks and then they’ve got the spittle coming over…I take care of some people that are compromised and I’m not willing to just trust that they are going to do the right thing when they haven’t, so I need something in writing,” she said.

In response to Hairston, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), who chairs the committee, said she would ensure that City Council safety measures were improved, including bringing in plastic shields, cleaning microphones and cleaning chairs. 

Still, Hairston voted against Smith’s rule change in protest of a lack of plexiglass barriers in the City Council chambers.

Smith looked further into the future, beyond the pandemic, and said she hoped “someone goes down to Springfield and makes remote legislating legal for committees.”

Not everyone agreed with the efficacy of virtual meetings, however. Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) said he believed there’s “quite a bit of value of all of us being together…to have more continuity, I think, in the debate and discussion.”

The Chair of the Budget Committee, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), told her colleagues in an email Friday she was still “exploring options related to in-person, hybrid or virtual meetings” for the upcoming annual budget hearings, when city department leaders field questions from aldermen on their budget requests during daily marathon meetings.

The email said the hearings will begin Friday, September 24 and run every weekday until Friday, Oct. 8.

The Committee also unanimously adopted a procedural move to redirect an ordinance legalizing sports gambling to a joint Committee on License and Consumer Protection, and Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards to be considered later this year.

The measure had been banished to the Committee on Committees and Rules by Ald. Anthony Beale in July on procedural grounds. 

The ordinance (O2021-3243), sponsored by Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), would allow wagering on games at Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, Soldier Field, the United Center and Wintrust Arena. Each venue would be allowed to apply for a “primary license” at the price of $50,000 followed by an additional $25,000 per year, and third-party service providers could apply for “secondary licenses” for $10,000 followed by a $5,000 annual rate. 

Burnett told The Daily Line in July that he introduced the ordinance to benefit the United Center, which is in his ward, after the venue provided space for food and vaccine distribution during the height of the pandemic.  

“I know of all the things they do in the community,” Burnett said at the time. “I know whatever they make off it is going to go back to the community…they’ve been contributing to the city for so many years, and they should have an opportunity to get in on it too.” 

Beale sent the ordinance to the rules committee after city Clerk Anna Valencia confirmed that Burnett had submitted his ordinance after the deadline she had previously set for aldermen to submit their legislation.

But Burnett said he has also faced pushback on the ordinance from casino operators, who he said “are trying to block it” because they would rather keep the bets at their own locations.  

“They have their lobbyists running around,” Burnett said.

Two other items that were directly introduced to Friday’s agenda were not heard during the meeting. 

Harris said the first, the appointment of two members to a search committee to find a successor to outgoing Inspector General Joe Ferguson, was withdrawn. Harris did not say why it was withdrawn or when the appointments would come before the committee again.

The other direct introduction will be taken up on at 4 p.m. Monday when the committee reconvenes, Harris said.

The direct introduction is a resolution “pursuant to Rule 36” of the City Council Rules of Order and Procedure. Rule 36 encompasses multiple rules related to City Council committees, including appointment procedures for chairs and vice chairs.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) resigned her chairmanship last month of the City Council Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity, nearly two months after she was indicted and later pleaded not guilty to bribery charges.

Ald. David Moore (17th) currently serves as vice chair of Austin’s former committee. He conducted a Friday morning of the committee.

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