Imagine if a budding entrepreneur was hoping to open a roller coaster in the empty lot next door to your home and the only way to know what would happen during your local government’s zoning meeting was to attend in person, in the middle of the day. You couldn’t watch live from the comfort of your home, nor could you wait for the recording of the hearing to be online. Of course, this is not a hypothetical — the Chicago City Council does not broadcast nor record their committee hearings. Only their full council meetings — which typically happen only once a month — are broadcast and recorded.
Committee meetings are important because some of the most significant topics are discussed in detail. For example, it’s the city’s budget and government operations committee that discusses and debates the city’s budget in great detail. It’s the city’s zoning committee that approves or disapproves of new developments, such as a new shop, housing complex, or roller coaster (though unlikely) on your block. By listening to a full city council meeting you get bits and pieces of the policy pie, whereas committee meetings will give you that full flavor — the crucial and important details about city policy you need to know.
Cities that broadcast or record their meetings
Chicago’s lack of committee broadcasts and recordings seems out of place in this day and age. The Better Government Association’s (BGA) Policy Team surveyed local and national cities. We found both broadcasting, and at the very least, recordings of meetings are done in some of the largest cities in the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas. We also found Chicago’s neighbors, like Skokie, also were broadcasting, as were other local governing boards like Cook County and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
Los Angeles’ (L.A.) program has been around for about seven years. A spokesperson for the city clerk’s office for L.A. said their broadcast program was not just about transparency, it also ensured Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. According to Patrice Lattimore from the Council & Public Services Division, “the feedback has been positive. The audio streaming allows the public easier access to the meeting… [and we are able] to reach more younger crowds.”
The conversation to bring more transparency to Chicago committee meetings has already started. An ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, was introduced this summer.
The ordinance would allow a chair of a committee to broadcast and record its meetings. Reilly confirmed that “… much of the work conducted at council meetings is honorary and parliamentary in nature… as all council members know, the real work of legislating is conducted during the committee meetings.” Reilly said “allowing committee meetings to be broadcast on the Internet will increase transparency of city council, and will allow Chicago residents an opportunity to observe, in real-time, debate on measures being considered by the city council.”
Ald. Reilly’s ordinance does not require that each committee meeting get broadcasted or recorded. Rather, the decision is left to the individual leaders of the city council’s 39 committees and joint committees. However, as of September 10, only one committee chair had signed on in support of the legislation. It remains unclear if most or all committee chairs will broadcast meetings, bringing Chicago into the 21st Century and in line with other major cities and neighboring governments, or if it is just the beginning of the conversation.