How Open Is an "Open" Council Meeting? | Bleader

How Open Is an "Open" Council Meeting?

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As a series of mayoral appointees has conducted a series of experiments with the Chicago Public Schools over the last 15 years, the City Council's education committee has weighed in infrequently, at best—meeting no more than a couple times a year, typically to sign off on those mayoral picks. Rarely has the committee met to discuss the shifting district policies that have brought about, among other things, the closing of dozens of struggling schools.

To know why, you'd have to ask the aldermen who've chaired the committee at the mayor's pleasure. For years that was Patrick O'Connor, one of Mayor Daley's top council allies. When he stepped down in 2007 Daley picked 17th Ward alderman Latasha Thomas to take his place.

This afternoon, though, Thomas held a meeting at the behest of aldermen Pat Dowell (Third Ward) and Freddrenna Lyle (Sixth), who have called on schools chief Ron Huberman to impose a moratorium on school closings. "Due to a lack of transparency and community involvement, there is a growing distrust regarding CPS's decisions," they stated in a resolution [PDF] introduced to the council last week.

Naturally, the meeting was quickly engulfed in a dispute over just how much transparency and community involvement it should include.

It started late, after Dowell, Lyle, and Thomas conferred for some time in the lounge behind council chambers about how to proceed. And once it was under way, not everyone was happy about Thomas's plans.

A restless and sometimes rowdy group of school activists applauded and shouted out amens as Dowell and Lyle opened the meeting by ripping schools officials for critical decisions "based on bad information and made in a vacuum ... without concern for the safety of students," as Dowell put it.

"We haven't done what needs to be done to help these schools before we pull the plug," Lyle added.

The crowd roared its support.

Thomas said she was right with them. "I agree that we need a better process."

She said that the committee would next hear testimony about the issue from Huberman and other schools officials—but she barely had the words out before 22nd Ward alderman Rick Munoz shouted at her.

"Point of order!" he yelled. "When will members of the public be allowed to testify?"

People in the audience hollered out that they had the same question.

"At a public hearing the public is supposed to be allowed to speak," Munoz insisted.

Thomas said everyone would get a chance to testify—"at some point in the future." "This is a committee meeting, not a public hearing," she told Munoz.

Munoz said that since notice of the meeting had been posted online for the public to see, the state's Open Meetings Act required that members of the public be offered an opportunity to speak. Thomas informed him that it wasn't happening.

"Madam chair, that is illegal," Munoz snapped.

Thomas shot back that he was free to complain formally. "If you want to file something, then file it," she told him. She said she would not be allowing public testimony.

"I move that members of the committee overrule the chairman," Munoz said.

"Recess!" Thomas countered.

People in the audience stood up and shouted their thoughts on the matter: that Thomas was full of it. The half-dozen other aldermen on the council floor looked at Thomas, then at Munoz, then at each other, apparently bewildered. Munoz repeated his demand for a roll call vote to overrule Thomas. She gripped her mike and declared that there would be a vote but it would be on a matter of her choosing: whether to call the committee into recess.

Aldermen Anthony Beale, Lona Lane, Sharon Dixon, Roberto Maldonado, and Walter Burnett voted with her. Munoz, Scott Waguespack, and Tom Tunney said nay. Dowell and Lyle aren't members of the committee and didn't get to vote.

"The ayes have it," Thomas concluded. She hammered the gavel down. "Recess!"

Over the next 20 minutes, Munoz circulated among members of the audience, getting the names and titles of activists who wished to speak. Thomas talked with Waguespack, then with Dowell. Lyle gave interviews to reporters. Thomas stood at the front of the room by herself for awhile, then met with more aldermen in the back.

Finally she restarted the meeting with a pounding of the gavel. She announced that she'd decided on a compromise: after Huberman testified she would grant the leaders of several school advocacy groups two minutes each to say what they needed to say.

In the council lounge, Munoz told reporters that he'd provided her with the names. He seemed to think this was as good a deal as he would get even though he insisted Thomas was breaking the law. "We can rule to close off the hearing but we have to hold a vote on it first," he said.

It was, perhaps, a small victory for democracy—even though Munoz was wrong. The Open Meetings Act requires that government bodies meet in public, and it specifies that the bodies must vote—in public—about any plan to meet behind closed doors. But it doesn't say a word about requiring an opportunity for members of the public to speak.

Huberman went on to take the blows aldermen leveled at him and promised that CPS would come up with a better process for determining school closings. "What we're saying is, 'We hear you,'" he told the committee.

This appeared to appease a few of his critics—but not everyone there was happy. One man in the audience began assailing Huberman and Thomas for a list of grievances, including his belief that he'd been unfairly stripped of his right to testify. "We want our name on the list!" he shouted. He was surrounded by police officers and escorted to the door, yelling about the injustice of it all with every step.

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