Your NPR news source
City Council in Chicago

Members of the public shout during a Chicago City Council Rules Committee hearing at City Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

Ashlee Rezin

Chicago’s City Council is tightening public access amid a slew of chaotic meetings

On a Tuesday morning in early November, Antonio Gutierrez ventured to City Hall despite a warning from fellow community organizers that recent council meetings have been “scary.”

They hadn’t been to one in a few years, but Gutierrez felt they had to go to voice their support for Chicago’s sanctuary city ordinance. For decades it has helped protect undocumented immigrants like Gutierrez, but two alderpeople are pushing to ask voters whether it should be repealed.

As Gutierrez sat down in the chamber’s second floor public gallery that morning, the warning from their cohorts rang true.

“I noticed right away that this wasn’t the space for dialogue. It was a really chaotic space,” Gutierrez said. “It was scary.”

The Nov. 7 committee meeting was one in a series this year where unruly attendees have interrupted the council’s business by shouting at one another and at council members making floor speeches. Some of those agitators have become fixtures at nearly every meeting, at times using offensive language to express opposition to the ongoing influx of migrants.

The meetings — topics of which have spanned funding for the migrant influx, to Israel’s war on Gaza, to a slew of progressive policy proposals from Mayor Brandon Johnson — have worn on the patience and energy of the City Council, and called into question the safety of alderpersons and their staff.

Over the past six months, some alderpersons say they’ve also received emailed threats, one has been accosted at a public event, and the city has had to, on more than one occasion, clear the council chambers. Now, the team in charge of security for City Council says it is instituting new rules in an effort to keep meetings in order, including limiting access to the City Council’s second floor.

“There have been times where things have gotten or seem to have gotten out of hand,” Rich Guidice, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s chief of staff, recently told WBEZ. “I would just say that there’s a lot of contentious situations that are taking place in our city at this time. And we’re just trying to balance it with First Amendment privileges and rights.”

At that Nov. 7 meeting, as they sat in the council’s second floor gallery waiting for their turn to speak at the mic, Gutierrez said they got swept up in emotion hearing some in the crowd shout or applaud xenophobic comments. They started shouting too, in response.

“At one point or another, we were all participating in the screaming, in the shouting, in the booing of some of the alderpeople as they were speaking,” Gutierrez said.

Eventually, Gutierrez calmed down, they said. But a few minutes later, Gutierrez said they were forcibly removed from chambers, detained by police and transported to a nearby station, where they were eventually released without charges. Gutierrez said while many people were shouting, they seemed to be the only one arrested.

“I wasn’t sure how the decision was being made about who was escorted out and who wasn’t being escorted out,” Gutierrez said.

A chaotic first six months

During his first six months in office, Johnson and his progressive council allies have pushed an ambitious agenda — including a wage increase for tipped workers, a ballot measure on a new funding stream for homeless prevention, expanded paid leave for workers, along with his first, $16.7 billion budget.

Opponents, too, have pushed their own agenda, using parliamentary maneuvers to try to delay those proposals, and on one occasion holding a special meeting of their own.

This has led to an unusual number of council meetings and, with that, more opportunities for public comment, during Johnson’s first term.

“We allow public comments, I mean, almost every day at this point,” said Ald. Julia Ramirez, 12th Ward, who was physically accosted — not in chambers but in her ward — by protestors opposed to migrant shelter there.

“And so people are more aware of all the tension, because we’re constantly in City Hall … If we actually have more time in the ward to work on these things and have conversations, I think that it does provide comfort, once [residents] get those answers. And then people can be less frustrated,” she said.

There have been 16 full City Council meetings since Johnson took office in May, not counting meetings that were called but then reconvened for scheduling purposes, and not counting committee meetings that also allow for public comment.

During the same time — from May to November — for former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, there were nine full council meetings, and 10 during the initial six months of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term.

The frequency of meetings, along with their high-stakes subject matter has worn on council members themselves. Behind-the-scenes political jostling over the city’s sanctuary status turned public earlier this month, and led to the ousting of Johnson’s floor leader and zoning chair.

“It’s a lot of council meetings — a lot for the mayor, it’s a lot for his staff,” Guidice said. “It’s a lot for the aldermen to come downtown, taking them out of their wards, to City Hall to participate in these — which, again, is another reason to ensure that these council meetings go as smoothly as they can just based on the number that we have hit.”

New safety protocols enacted

Security at council meetings is overseen by the Sergeant at Arms and his team, who reports to the council’s Committee on Committees and Rules.

Under new protocols outlined to WBEZ by the committee, only people who have been invited by a public official or have otherwise coordinated a special visit to a City Council meeting — such as a school field trip — will be allowed in the open, second floor gallery of the council.

That space includes rows of chairs situated directly behind council members. That space is normally filled by members of the public on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Instead, according to the Rules Committee, members of the public who sign up to speak, or come to watch council proceedings without an invitation will sit on the third floor balcony above the chambers, which is closed off by a glass barrier.

The Rules Committee told WBEZ that policy, which has not been published publicly, will remain in place indefinitely. How the new rules play out in real time remains to be seen. It’s unclear whether spectators will be turned away when the third floor is full, or if they’ll be permitted to the second floor if there is extra space. And it’s unclear if this policy applies to committee meetings or only full city council meetings.

Committee chairmen are also now starting meetings by reading aloud a set of guidelines for public spectators — reminding them they are banned from things like using profanity or shouting over others. That will give the Sergeant at Arms firmer ground to stand on when they need to remove spectators from the chambers, the Rules Committee told WBEZ.

During one of the first meetings where the rules were read, another spectator was arrested after they were told to “stop yelling and stop using profanity multiple times but refused,” according to an arrest report.

Keeping meetings in order is also the responsibility of the mayor, who has been reluctant to have disruptive spectators removed from the public gallery. One good government advocate says that allowing more public comment, even if at times unruly, is good for the city’s democratic process.

“I think Johnson’s initial instincts have been to let people have some outcry,” Geoffrey Cubbage, a policy analyst for the Better Government Association. “And I think those are good instincts. At the end of the day, City Council is going to get its business done, [even] if they have to listen to some hooting and hollering from the gallery for a little while before they get there. That’s not the end of the world.

“I don’t think what we’re seeing is really, terribly unreasonable by the standards of most parliamentary bodies.”

Threats outside City Hall

Some council members say they’ve felt physically safe in council chambers despite the interruptions. But they’ve been made to feel undignified by aggression both in and out of City Hall through verbal and virtual threats.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez’s 33rd Ward office received a deeply disturbing email in mid-October. It was a single line of text packed with multiple threats.

The note started with a death threat, then a graphic threat of sexual violence, followed by the words “You worthless [racial expletive].”

A member of the council’s Democratic Socialists caucus, Rodriguez-Sanchez has been outspoken on social media about her progressive views — most recently in expressing support for Palestinians. The day the email was received, she posted about the murder of a local six-year-old Palestinian American boy.

“It’s always terrible when you get a death threat, or a rape threat — it is a really horrible feeling and it shakes you. But then, you know, you think about, ‘Okay, what are the actual chances that they will do this to me?’ I think it feels more like an attack on my dignity as a human being, then it feels like an actual physical threat,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

Another alderperson, Ald. Deb Silverstein, 50th Ward, who is Jewish, received a threatening email after she spearheaded a resolution to condemn Hamas after the Oct. 7 attack in Israel.

The email contained ethnic slurs, a death threat to her and all Jewish people, and the proclamation that “Hitler should of killed all of [you],” according to a police report. No arrests have been made in connection to the letter, according to the Chicago Police Department.

Silverstein wasn’t available for an interview for this story.

Rodriguez-Sanchez, who’s gotten virtual threats in the past spanning back years, said “it would be really good for the new administration to start thinking about different protocols.”

Rodriguez-Sanchez said while she hasn’t felt physically threatened in chambers, members of her staff have. After numerous unruly meetings where her staff have been targeted and screamed at during council meetings, they now walk in groups together around City Hall.

“I think the times are changing, and we are in a very polarized political moment,” she said.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics and government for WBEZ.

The Latest
Pritzker said Harris has proven she’s the best person to next lead the country, but his statement is silent about whether he wants to be her VP.

Some Democrats are staying mum, with just weeks to go before the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Chicago next month.
While Pritzker has emphatically expressed his support of Biden, he’s also not quashed the narrative that he has White House ambitions.
The decision comes after escalating pressure from Biden’s Democratic allies to step aside following the June 27 debate, in which the 81-year-old president trailed off, often gave nonsensical answers and failed to call out Donald Trump’s many falsehoods.
Residents and members of social justice groups join civil rights groups and the city watchdog in calling on the Office of the Inspector General to investigate the officers named in a probe into extremist groups.