Around Chicago, it’s safe to say that the City Council hasn’t always been viewed as a model of legislative independence.
By law, of course, the council is the city’s legislative branch, responsible for passing ordinances and providing oversight of city operations. But the council has long been characterized as a rubber stamp for powerful mayors. Even aldermen have noted — and in some cases boasted — that they saw their primary responsibilities as delivering services in their wards, leaving much of the legislative process in the hands of the executive branch.
That led the late downtown Alderman Burton Natarus to describe himself as a ward janitor, while former council progressive Joe Moore called the body a Midwestern version of the Soviet politburo. Years ago, when I was first reporting on City Hall, I asked then-Alderman Rick Munoz, an occasional mayoral critic, if I could interview him about council independents. He started laughing. “Have you found any yet?” he asked.
Still, I had never heard a mayor or city official state openly that aldermen weren’t actually legislators — that is, not until this month. That’s when the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot made the claim in response to a complaint I filed over possible Open Meetings Act violations.
According to a recent letter from the city’s Law Department, Lightfoot and her aides were justified in holding a series of private conference call meetings with the City Council this spring because “the aldermen participated in the calls as community representatives, not as legislators.”
The calls included briefings and discussions of the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which at the time was in its early days. But to the Lightfoot administration, the meetings didn’t involve “public business” because aldermen didn’t debate or vote on specific legislative proposals.
“These calls had no legislative aspect whatsoever,” said the letter, written to the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. “Rather, their sole purpose was to convey information regarding the City’s pandemic response to help the aldermen continue to serve effectively in the field as community-based first responders.”
The attorney general’s office rejected the argument, determining that city officials had violated the Open Meetings Act on three occasions this spring.
Members of the City Council I spoke with were irked but not surprised by the city’s reasoning.
“First, let me just say that our title is ‘alderman’ as codified in the Illinois statute. We are elected as aldermen and not community representatives,” said Leslie Hairston of the 5th Ward. “That is being very dismissive of the role that we play in government, which is that of a legislator.”
In truth, the argument represents a view that many mayors have held but rarely stated, knowing they need council support to pass their initiatives and don’t need to stir up a rebellion that’s otherwise unlikely. And it’s a bad look, even for elected officials yearning for the powers of a monarch.
But the argument is also illustrative of deep-rooted resistance to openness in Chicago government, both among executive and legislative offices.
As transparency has become a popular buzzword, Chicago’s mayors have vowed to embrace it, often while spending taxpayer money fighting it.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley literally laughed at the idea of transparency; to him, it meant posting reporters’ Freedom of Information Act requests online but not the public records they requested. His successor, Rahm Emanuel, promised “the most open, accountable, and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen.” He then spent years blocking the release of records related to the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
Elected last year as a reformer, Lightfoot already has some blotches on her own record. She continued a legal battle, started under Emanuel, against the release of emails and texts from officials’ private accounts that pertain to city business. Last month, a state appellate court ruled in favor of the Better Government Association, the watchdog group that had brought the suit.
All of this costs money. From January 2019 through May 2020, including Lightfoot’s first year in office, the city paid more than $800,000 in settlements and fees in FOIA and Open Meetings Act cases, Law Department records show.
Promising to deliver on another reform, Lightfoot has worked to reduce the power of aldermen, such as by limiting their “prerogative” over matters large and small in their wards.
Still, as COVID-19 struck the city, Lightfoot stressed that aldermen were her “partners.” During the frenzied early days of the pandemic in Chicago, she and her aides invited all 50 aldermen to join telephone and video briefings as often as several times a week. The discussions sometimes went on for more than an hour, with the mayor and other top city officials taking questions and suggestions from aldermen on matters ranging from police strategies to wellness checks for seniors. Some of the exchanges were heated, as the public eventually learned when recordings of meetings were leaked to me and other reporters.
According to the Open Meetings Act, “all meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public,” with limited exceptions for matters such as discussions of employee firings or public security planning. The law applies whether the meetings are held in person or by video or phone.
In May, I asked the state’s public access counselor to review whether the City Council briefings violated the law. The PAC leads a bureau of the attorney general’s office that enforces the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.
The PAC asked the city to respond. Eventually, a city lawyer told the PAC that Lightfoot and her aides participated in conference calls with a quorum of the City Council on March 26, March 30 and April 6. But even though the discussions covered health, public safety, housing, the economy and schools, the Lightfoot administration claimed the calls didn’t qualify as official meetings because they didn’t concern “public business.”
“There was no presentation or discussion of new legislative developments, actual legislation, or anything remotely within the legislative sphere,” the city’s letter stated.
In rejecting the argument, the PAC offered Lightfoot and the city’s lawyers — and maybe certain aldermen as well — a reminder that the City Council is, in fact, Chicago’s legislative branch.
“If there were a distinction between members of the Council gathering as ‘community
representatives’ rather than as legislators, it would be a distinction without a difference,” the PAC stated in a Sept. 11 opinion. “Aldermen represent their constituents in the community by virtue of their positions as elected members of the Council, which is a legislative body.”
The PAC concluded that city officials had broken the law by failing to post notice of the virtual council meetings ahead of time, make them open to the public, keep minutes of the proceedings or provide opportunity for public comment.
The opinion requested, but didn’t require, that the city release summaries of the City Council conference calls from the three dates. When I followed up this week, a spokeswoman for the Law Department shared meeting summaries with me and said they would be available to anyone who asked.
“Consistent with our view that the City acted properly in these instances, and with due regard for the recent PAC determination and applicable law, the City will continue to take action as needed to preserve public safety on a case-by-case basis,” wrote the spokeswoman, Kathleen Fieweger.
In other words, the Lightfoot administration isn’t apologizing for convening City Council meetings behind closed doors.
And it continues to fight a lawsuit filed by the Better Government Association demanding the release of recordings of the closed-door meetings.
“We’re pleased that the Attorney General has rejected the City’s claims,” said Matt Topic, outside general counsel for the BGA. Topic, an expert on open-government law, has also represented ProPublica in a number of matters. “But any administration that truly valued transparency would never have held these meetings in secret in the first place, and certainly wouldn’t continue to withhold the recordings from the public who was legally entitled to attend them.”
Aldermen say the mayor’s team and the City Council now hold briefings with smaller groups to ensure that no meeting reaches a council quorum, just as they did before the pandemic.
After breaking the law, Chicago’s political leaders have found a way around it.