New Rules Inhibit Public Attendance at Council Meetings

After weeks of confusion, written rules for public attendance at Chicago City Council meetings have been published on the City Clerk’s website.

The Better Government Association believes the new rules violate the spirit and likely the letter of the state’s Open Meetings Act and calls on city government to reverse these changes.  

The new rules discourage public participation in council meetings, and the City Council’s longstanding rules provided for safety and decorum at council meetings if responsibly enforced by the Council Sergeant-at-Arms. 

The new rules were not voted on by the City Council, which means they may violate the Open Meetings Act, which requires public bodies to vote on rules governing access. The Act guards the public’s rights to attend, record and address public officials face-to-face during meetings of governmental bodies.

Under the new City Council rules, access to the second floor gallery–adjacent to where council meets–would require a reservation made at least 48 hours in advance, with admission only to people who present government-issued identification. Requiring registration for the meeting of a public body is a highly unusual step, virtually unheard of in Illinois.

Other attendees would be shunted to the third-floor gallery, which overhangs the area where most alderpeople sit, putting them out of the public’s line of sight. That gallery also is enclosed in glass, making public input from it virtually inaudible on the City Council floor.

Microphones needed for public comment would be moved to the third-floor gallery, where speakers’ natural voices would not be audible through the glass windows rimming the front of that gallery.

The requirement for 48-hour advance registration is impractical for meetings called on short notice.

In a time where important matters are being discussed, the public is entitled to open access to our government. 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. 

BGA Policy notes Mayor Brandon Johnson’s background as a progressive and calls on him to exercise leadership to protect open meetings so residents of Chicago can hold their government accountable. 

BGA Policy is reviewing whether the new rules comply with the Open Meetings Act and stands ready to advise the city on acceptable revision of access rules, if in fact any change is needed. 

The Better Government Association is a 100-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.

Mayor Johnson’s Proposed FOP Contract Obtained by BGA Policy

A collective bargaining agreement between the City of Chicago and the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the city’s rank-and-file police officers, is scheduled for a vote today in City Council’s workforce development committee.

The text of the offer was not made public prior to the meeting. The Better Government Association obtained a copy via FOIA, available below. 

In addition to historically large salary increases and a one-time signing bonus already announced publicly by the administration, the contract obtained by the BGA contains previously unannounced compensation provisions, including $1000 stipends for officers with various certifications, upgrades in salary schedule for officers with SWAT, Major Accidents, Field Training, Evidence Technician and Detective assignments, and a physical fitness premium increase. The cost of these new measures has not been publicly evaluated. 

The agreement also addresses a wide range of operational and disciplinary issues, including a homicide teams pilot program, compensatory time cash-in changes, and a new agreement on the use and review of body worn cameras. 

This contract is highly significant and impactful legislation both from a budgetary and a public safety standpoint, and deserves a full and thorough evaluation. The BGA urges City Council and its Workforce Development Committee to table any vote on this item until the public has had time to evaluate the contract proposals, made public here for the first time.

BGA Notifies Johnson Administration of Possible Open Meetings Act Violations

The Honorable Brandon Johnson

Mayor, City of Chicago


Alvin Starks

City Council Sergeant-at-Arms 

Chairwoman Michelle Harris

Committee on Committees and Rules  

December 2, 2023

Dear Mayor Johnson: 

In recent weeks, members of the public–including representatives of the Better Government Association–have been denied access to the second floor of the city council chambers and directed by security to observe council proceedings from the third-floor gallery instead. These denials mark a change of policy, negatively affect access to meetings of this public body, and are an inequitable and likely illegal departure from past practice. 

News reports indicate that the council’s sergeant at arms has imposed these changes in response to allegedly disruptive and profane behavior by people attending council meetings. Evidently, the new rules–which have not been voted on or published by council–allow entry to the second-floor gallery only to observers who are invited by public officials. With few exceptions, all others are relegated to the third-floor gallery. Even the microphones used for public comment have been moved there.  

Access to the third-floor gallery is not the same as access to the second floor, where council members do the people’s business. Because the third-floor gallery overhangs much of the chamber’s second floor, attendees in the third-floor gallery cannot see most of the alderpeople. Attendees cannot be seen, and can barely be heard, by council second-class status and degrades public access to meetings of this vitally important public body.

On several occasions you have responded to disruptions by clearing the public from the chambers. It is important, of course, that the sergeant deal promptly with any safety risk created by disruptive behavior. And it could be possible that in extreme instances the sergeant has a right to remove individuals whose words disrupt council  proceedings. But 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 Illinois Open Meetings Act governs public access to meetings of Chicago’s city council, its committees and other public bodies. It requires that rules governing access and decorum are published, which helps to inform the public, aid in enforcement, and enable compliance. The Act also requires that policies governing access must be set by a vote of the governing body–in this case, city council. The authority to set such rules cannot be delegated to the sergeant or other officials.

In addition to being bad policy, we believe these new rules likely are illegal for several reasons.  First, the Open Meetings Act does not allow for preferential treatment among different classes of attendees.  See 5 ILCS 120/2.01 (meetings must be “open and convenient”); Gerwin v. Livingston Cnty. Bd., 345 Ill. App. 3d 352, 358, 802 N.E.2d 410, 415 (2003) (meeting not “open” where preferential treatment given to attendees favorable to public body).  Second, the third floor is not “convenient” under Section 2.01 due to the limitations described above, and third, those limitations of the third floor interfere with the public’s right to record under Section 2.05.  Finally, the restrictions interfere with the public’s right to “address” the Council under Section 2.06(g). Finally, these restrictions were not “established and recorded” by the Council, and are therefore invalid unless and until the Council votes on them, even if they were substantively proper.  

Please note that, among other remedies, a court can declare null and void any final action taken in a meeting found to be “closed”–which includes meetings in which preferential treatment in access to the second floor is granted. Given the important work before the Council, continuing to follow these vague rules, which the Council itself has meetings. Defending these rules would seem an unwise use of public resources. And, most importantly, continuing to apply these rules would deny the public’s rightful access to meetings of City Council.

The Better Government Association has a 100-year history of ensuring government accountability through application of the Open Meetings Act and other laws. If lawful changes to existing policy are needed, our policy team would be pleased to work with the rules committee, individual alderpeople or city staff in promulgating new rules that provide appropriate public access while ensuring safety, decorum and adherence to the Open Meetings Act. 

Until any such changes can be made, we respectfully request that the policies that have served council for years remain in place unless and until new policies are properly considered and adopted–in a public proceeding after appropriate public input. An open and free society relies on the ability of citizens to witness democracy in action, and we would be honored to contribute toward your efforts to ensure public access to the workings of Chicago’s city council.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Please respond to this note with information outlining the actions you plan to take in order to address concerns noted in this letter. We seek an outcome that will uphold the principles of transparency, equity and accountability in city government–in an environment that is safe and accessible for all stakeholders and contributes toward the effective functioning of city council.

Sincerely yours,

David Greising

President & CEO

Better Government Association

Unwritten Rules Limit City Council Gallery Seating; Reserve Prime Spots for “Invitation Only”

Free and equitable access to City Council meetings is a basic bulwark of our civic democracy. Any changes to policy and procedures should be undertaken only with public input and due deliberation. 

The BGA calls on the Sergeant-at-Arms and City Council leadership to publish clear and public rules, if any changes have been made to the policies currently posted on the City Clerk’s website, and to ensure that those rules apply equally to all attendees.

Recent visitors to City Council have been confronted with new and confusing procedures for public attendance. Seating areas on the open second-floor level previously available on a first-come, first-served basis are now blocked, with the general public directed to the glassed-in third-floor balcony. 

The written rules for public attendance posted on the City Clerk’s website have not been updated, and still state, “The public is admitted to the Gallery’s non-reserved seats on a first-come, first-served basis.” Media reports and verbal responses from the Sergeant-at-Arms have indicated that second-floor seating is now invitation only, with no clear process or policy for how those invitations occur. 

The Better Government Association opposes any division of public seating into invitation-only and general public sections. Personal relationships with elected officials should not be a determining factor in the public’s access to public meetings. Any new rules or restrictions should be applied equally to all attendees, with no carve-outs for aldermanic or mayoral invitations. 

Despite pledges of greater transparency during his campaign and a “City Hall Open House” photo-op at his inauguration, Mayor Johnson has more significantly restricted access to the upper floors of City Hall – including aldermanic and mayoral office suites as well as the council chambers – than any of his predecessors. The public is not even allowed access to the stairs or elevators until shortly before public meetings, and the new, unpublished seating rules banish most attendees to the upper balcony, which offers more limited viewing and hearing, as well as suffering from overcrowding and overheating.

The Better Government Association is a 100-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.

Policy: BGA Condemns Improper Adjournments of City Council Meetings

Twice in the past week, Chicago voters have seen their democratically-elected government abruptly adjourned or recessed without approval from the body. 

A chaotic special session called by a group of five alderpersons on Thursday, Nov. 2 was abruptly declared adjourned by president pro tempore Samantha Nugent (39th Ward), chairing the meeting in Mayor Johnson’s absence. No motion to adjourn was made, and no vote was taken, but the lights and microphones in the chamber were shut off. 

This week, on Tuesday Nov. 7, the council’s Committee on Committees and Rules was recessed until Thursday by the declaration of committee chair Michelle Harris, who did not call for a vote. Mics were again shut off, and after a lengthy delay the chamber shifted to a scheduled meeting of City Council. 

The council’s rules are clear, as are the Robert’s Rules of Order on which they are based: adjournment (the official ending of a meeting) and recess (the pause of the meeting until continuation at a later time) are motions that must be made by a member and affirmed by a majority vote. Absent that vote, the meeting cannot be concluded or postponed. This ensures that all members have their time to speak, at least until a majority of the body is willing to go on the record as ending discussion. 

“These are really basic, fundamental, parliamentary tenets,” stated Bryan Zarou, the Better Government Association’s Policy Director. “There’s a democratic process to running a meeting, and ‘turn off the lights and mics’ is not a part of that process.”

Neither of the improperly-concluded meetings were overseen by Mayor Brandon Johnson, but they were chaired by members of his hand-picked leadership team. “This is legislative leadership that seems to feel comfortable ending debate without affirmative support of the elected body,” said Zarou. “That’s very worrying for the public – these are their elected representatives who have been repeatedly cut off.”

The Better Government Association, which for 100 years has served as a public, non-partisan watchdog organization, strongly condemns the practice of ending public meetings without the required motion and vote, whether to adjourn or to recess, and calls on Mayor Johnson and his leadership team to respect City Council’s rules and role as a public, deliberative body. 

BGA Supports Proposed Improvements to Inspector General Appointment Process

The Better Government Association supports the passage of O2023-1245, introduced by Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward), which brings urgency and accountability to the city’s process for filling a vacant inspector general position. 

In 2022 the BGA Policy Team wrote detailed analyses of the slow and opaque process for nominating the city’s Inspector General, as well as the IG’s lack of authority to release final reports. The proposal by Martin, chair of the city council ethics committee, addresses the former, and we hope sets the stage for council action on the latter. 

The BGA found that the city’s current process for replacing an inspector general lacks hard deadlines, relies on a private search firm with little public disclosure, does not provide for an interim or acting inspector general, and creates a second vacancy by ending the term of the deputy inspector general for public safety at the time the IG leaves office.

New language introduced by Martin substantially addresses all the major issues identified by the BGA. It provides deadlines for nomination, requires disclosure of any search firm hired by the city to recruit a new IG; provides for the IG office’s general counsel to serve as interim Inspector General if needed during the search, and provides continuity in the office by allowing the deputy for public safety to continue serving in the absence of an IG. 

The BGA remains committed to seeing City Council further expand the independence of the IG’s office by allowing inspectors general independently to release their reports. Currently, mayors can block release, delaying the public’s access to this vital, taxpayer-funded information. 

O2023-1245 is currently scheduled for a vote in the ethics committee on Thursday, July 13. The Better Government Association urges favorable passage by the committee and City Council.

The Better Government Association is a 100-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.

Better Government Association Statement: Supreme Court FOIA Ruling Limits Transparency; Significantly Broadens Exemptions to FOIA

A unanimous Illinois Supreme Court ruling yesterday in a case called Chapman v. Chicago reverses a lower court’s ruling and blocks plaintiff Matt Chapman’s open records request for information from the City of Chicago’s Department of Finance. The court’s ruling undermines the public’s right to know about the workings of government and is a threat to research, journalism and the public interest. 

The Better Government Association, Illinois’ leading defender of the right of access to public records, will work to address this change in the law, in an effort to protect the ability of residents of the state to effectively hold their government accountable. 

“At a time when the need for government accountability is greater than ever, the Illinois Supreme Court with this ruling has taken a step backward. The language of the court’s ruling may seem narrow, but its implications are vast,” said David Greising, president of the Better Government Association. “The ruling will have the effect of blocking access to public records. They are called public records for a reason, and creating hurdles to access is not in the public interest. The BGA’s policy team will work with good-government protectors in the General Assembly to develop legislation that will repair the damage done by the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

The court’s decision hinges on an exemption to Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act that allows governments to deny access to technical information “that, if disclosed, would jeopardize the security of the system or its data or the security of materials exempt under this Section.” Data sets covered by the exemption include software, operating protocols, computer program abstracts, file layouts, and other information.

The Cook County circuit court had previously ruled that each type of information specified in the exemption was subject to the modifying language “if disclosed, would jeopardize the security of the system.” In the opinion of that court, the City of Chicago did not adequately demonstrate that the requested database information would jeopardize the system’s security, and therefore the request was not exempt from FOIA. 

The Supreme Court reversed the ruling, holding that the “security of the system” clause only applies to the phrase “any other information,” and that “file layouts” and other specifically named types of information are automatically and entirely exempted from FOIA. Relying on a dictionary definition rather than standard data science conventions, the court determined that Chapman’s requested information constituted a “file layout,” and was therefore exempt from FOIA. 

Matt Topic, a lawyer for the plaintiff stated: “No purpose is served by withholding technical information from the public when no harm will come from its release, and it is critically important that researchers, journalists, and others have robust access to non-identifying information about government databases.  For that reason, similar information about federal databases is publicly available on a federal website. The General Assembly should follow suit and amend this exemption to ensure public access unless a harm can be demonstrated from its release.” Topic is an expert in Freedom of Information Act law and serves as BGA Outside General Counsel. 

Chapman’s public records request sought an index of tables and columns from a City of Chicago Department of Finance database. Database indexes such as the one sought by Chapman’s request are used to query and sort specific subsets of information from large databases, and are a fundamental tool of data analysis and management. 

Vast amounts of public data are stored in databases like the one at issue in Chapman v. Chicago. By allowing governments to deny public records requesters the indexing tools needed to substantively analyze that data, the Supreme Court restricts the power of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The ruling’s broad language, which unlike the circuit court’s interpretation exempts all listed categories of records regardless of their security implications, could lead to a dangerous and significant expansion of the government’s ability to deny routine information. 

“We are ready to work with the legislature to ensure more access, not less to public records, ” said Bryan Zarou, Director of Policy at BGA Policy. The Better Government Association’s Policy Team’s state policy agenda calls for database schema and structures to be explicitly included under FOIA. The organization plans to work with supportive legislators to amend the statutory language to clarify that information requests such as Chapman’s are in the public interest and not exempt from FOIA. 

The Better Government Association is a 99-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.

“ComEd Four” Trial Underscores Need for Strengthened Ethics Reforms

In response to today’s guilty verdict in the federal corruption of former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, lobbyist Mike McClain, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker, and former lobbyist and City Club president Jay Doherty Better Government Association President David Greising said the following: 

“The jury’s guilty verdict on all counts strikes a blow against the culture of corruption that for years has robbed Illinois residents of their right to an honest and accountable government. It is a flat rejection of the claim that the systematic effort to corruptly influence House Speaker Mike Madigan was just ‘politics as usual.’ The jury spoke for all Illinoisans in demanding better from government officials, as well as from businesses and lobbyists who seek to influence policies that affect all Illinoisans, not just the connected, powerful and wealthy among us.”

The trial hinged on detailed arguments of what constitutes a bribe versus what is simply the normal order of doing business in Illinois. Central to the government’s case against ComEd executives and lobbyists was an allegation that the utility improperly sought to influence Michael J. Madigan, then Speaker of the Illinois House, by creating no-work lobbyist jobs and other inducements, all made possible by the revolving door between legislators, their campaign and office staff, lobbyist payrolls and the boards of state-regulated industries during Madigan’s long reign as Speaker. Jurors found the defendants guilty on all counts.

While the state’s lobbying oversight and transparency laws have been strengthened somewhat since the conduct that was put on trial, far more needs to be done. The defendant’s case relied heavily on the blurry lines between illegal influence and legal lobbying activity. Limited financial disclosures, short cooling-off periods between elected office and lobbying jobs, and “honor system” conflict-of-interest recusals in the legislation all contribute to the overly cozy relationships in Springfield between regulators and the regulated that were put on display at the “ComEd Four” trial.

Recommendations from the Better Government Association’s state policy agenda would strengthen public disclosure for lobbyists and legislators, lengthen the cooling-off period before former legislators can lobby their onetime colleagues (and be hired by state-regulated industries to do so), and require legislators with an economic interest to publicly recuse themselves from relevant votes. 

“This is about both conduct and culture,” said BGA Policy Director Bryan Zarou. “Legislators need to be kept in the public spotlight. It shouldn’t be just a question of what’s federally prosecutable. Transparency and disclosure can do as much to set clear, bright lines between legislative, regulatory, and lobbying work as criminal charges, and that’s what the BGA’s policy agenda is all about.” 

The Better Government Association is a 99-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.

Chicago’s City Council is Ready for a Reorg – and New Members Should Have Their Say

In a city long dominated by its mayor, the legislative branch is showing signs of independence: At a press conference held before the Wednesday, March 15 meeting of City Council, a group of alderpersons announced their intent to call a special session for the purpose of modifying the body’s rules and committee structure. 

The Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters of Chicago strongly urge a robust and public discussion of potential changes, with the adoption of any formal rules and committee assignments left until after the newly and re-elected Council members take their seats in May.

Both our organizations have publicly expressed their support for a more independent City Council, including the Council’s exercise of its existing authority to name its own leadership and committee structure. However, with elections ongoing and some runoffs still undecided, now is not the time for incumbent alderpersons to establish the rules by which their soon-to-be colleagues will be bound. The newly elected representatives deserve their seat at the table.

Among proposed changes to Council’s rules, an increase in the number of committees requires serious consideration and debate. City Council spends more than $5 million per year on its staffing, nearly all of which goes to committees – some of which have rarely met during the past four years. Staff hiring and duties are left to the discretion of the individual committee chairs, creating resource disparities between members of council and contributing to the ongoing perception of leadership as a “perk” rather than an administrative responsibility. Adding more committees without reforming Council’s staffing structure is a recipe for corruption and waste. 

Our organizations also have concerns with a proposed reduction in the maximum size of most committees from twenty to thirteen, which at the minimum quorum could allow legislation to be passed out of committee with as few as four votes. 

The Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters urge a substantive and thoughtful discussion of Council’s proposed new rules and committees as part of the new council’s first month of business. Proposals introduced at the inaugural session should be publicly debated and amended in the Committee on Rules before a final floor vote. Allowing newly-elected members to participate fully and ensuring that all new proposals have a substantive public discussion prior to any final vote will help ensure that a more independent City Council is also one committed to reform and deserving of the public trust. 

The Better Government Association is a 99-year-old civic watchdog that seeks better government through investigative journalism, policy reforms and civic engagement efforts that lead to more open, equitable and accountable government. The policy team and investigative unit operate independently of one another, while both seek to advance the cause of better government in Chicago and across Illinois.

The League of Women Voters of Chicago is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to protect and expand voting rights and ensure everyone is represented in our democracy. We empower voters and defend democracy through advocacy and education. The League of Women Voters of Chicago encourages informed and active participation in government while influencing public policy. We never endorse or oppose political parties or candidates, but we are political.

BGA Policy Statement: BGA Supports Resolution Requiring 48-Hour Notice for Direct Introductions to City Council Committees

Bryan Zarou 
Director of Policy, Better Government Association

The Better Government Association policy team supports R2022-687, a resolution modifying Chicago City Council’s internal rules to require 48-hour notice and public posting of any measures introduced into the City Council’s committees.

The proposed change, introduced by Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), would prevent items from being called for a committee vote before the public can read and comment on the legislative language. Currently, so-called “direct introductions” can be used by the administration to quickly introduce and pass items out of committee without substantial public oversight or input.

Ordinances, resolutions, and other items of business considered by City Council must under the regular order of business be introduced at a regular session of council, where each item is assigned to a committee for consideration. Under Rule 41 of Council’s Rules of Order and Procedure, the mayor’s administrative departments may instead introduce a measure directly into a committee “in order to facilitate an expeditious hearing on said matter or where an emergency exists.”

Direct introductions do not become public record until they are introduced at committee meetings. This means the text of a directly introduced proposal often is not available to the public until during or even after the committee meeting at which it is introduced.

Reilly’s proposal would require the full text of any directly introduced item to be made available no less than 48 hours before a vote could be taken on the item. This would improve transparency at committee meetings and allow for more thorough and informed public comment. The resolution also requires a written explanation for the emergency or other reason the item cannot follow the normal legislative process, and it prohibits the direct introduction of an item when a “substantially similar” proposal already is before a council committee.

The Better Government Association policy team supports and encourages the passage of Ald. Reilly’s resolution, currently scheduled for consideration by the Committee on Committees and Rules at 2pm on Tuesday, Oct. 25.