Thursday, July 27, 2017

How much is really gained from having public participation during govt mtgs?

The City Council in Chicago began Wednesday to permit public comment during its meetings, which really shouldn’t be a big deal.
Hot air emanates from da Hall, although not from pols

Illinois law actually requires municipal entities to set aside a portion of their meeting time to allow people to make statements about what their officials are doing. So the City Council really is just complying with the law.

IN FACT, AS reported by the Chicago Tribune, the City Council’s action was motivated by the courts – a lawsuit was filed and a judge issued an order requiring Chicago to permit some sort of public comment.

But as I have learned in writing about other government entities where public comment questions arose, Illinois law actually does not dictate what form the public comment must take.

Government entities are allowed to set their own rules.

I know that in my years as a reporter-type person, I have covered entities that strictly limited people to 3 minutes of talk and only on issues that were already on the council’s agenda. No trying to bring up anything else that might be of public concern, but that officials didn't want to discuss.

OTHERS HAVE PERMITTED people to bring up issues not on the council agenda, but usually in a portion of the meeting held at the end once all the actual business is complete and public officials are feeling antsy and are more interested in adjourning so they can go home.

I also know of one entity that requires people to submit their questions in writing, so that theoretically city officials can have their attorneys review them so that a proper answer can be provided. Although they’re not always rigid in enforcing that.

In Chicago, it seems the significant rule (as evidenced by Wednesday’s conduct) is that up to 30 minutes will be provided for public comment – with individuals allowed up to 3 minutes each.

If, by chance, there are too many people to fit within that half-hour, then it’s ‘tough luck’ for those individuals who lose out. We’ll have to see whether the courts accept this limit, since the people who filed the original lawsuit against the City Council indicate they intend to continue their court fight over this issue.

FROM MY OWN experience, I know that these government hearings usually attract characters. People who actually work for a living don’t have the time to spare to express themselves publicly.

We often get people who see it as their place in society to be the verbal pain in the political behind. I know one person who routinely shows up at Common Council sessions in Gary, Ind., who thinks his public comments are just as significant a part of the municipal process as the votes the council members take.

At the City Council, the Tribune reported that the first person to make a public comment to the City Council was George Blakemore. Although anybody who pays attention to local government knows Blakemore isn’t a stranger to speaking out.

Back when I used to write for a different newspaper, I covered the Cook County Board (amongst other things) and Blakemore’s presence was a given. He’d always have something to complain about. It would have been newsworthy if he hadn’t spoken.

PERSONALLY, I REMEMBER a time his rant turned into a diatribe against Latinos and how he saw them taking from black people – which caused President Toni Preckwinkle to cut him off and publicly denounce him for making racist remarks.

Of course, he insisted on perceiving the issue as one of being censored by the county board president. I suspect we’ll get lots more rants like this in coming weeks and months.

Personally, I have no problem with the idea of people being able to express themselves at a government meeting. Those officials, after all, are doing “the people’s business,” and the people ought to have a chance to say just what they think.

But now that we have public comment at the City Council sessions, we’re going to learn that the act of being a bloviated buffoon in public isn’t something necessarily limited to the elected officials.


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