Some good government and civil rights advocates in Chicago are decrying new protocols that dictate where members of the public can sit during full City Council meetings in response to a series of chaotic meetings in recent months.
On more than one occasion since May, council or committee meetings have had to recess early, or the public gallery cleared, due to unruly spectators who have shouted at one another and at council members about several heated, ongoing issues.
The Sergeant-at-Arms will now seat members of the general public on the council’s 70-seat, third floor balcony, which is closed off by a glass barrier, according to the Rules Committee. Participants can make public comments from the third floor using a microphone hooked up to the sound system.
The open, second floor gallery, with rows of seats behind alderpersons, will be used for special guests or staff members of public officials, along with pre-coordinated visits to a meeting, such as a school field trip.
The Rules Committee, which oversees the council’s security team, outlined the new protocols to WBEZ, but has not published them publicly. The committee clarified on Thursday that members of the public will not be turned away if the third floor is full, and will be allowed to sit on the second floor in that instance. The committee also clarified this seating protocol is for full council meetings, not committee meetings.
“This is a work in progress, and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we work to strike a balance between supporting First Amendment rights and ensuring safety in the City Council chamber,” said Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward, who chairs the council’s Rules Committee.
Ed Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy at the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement “there should not be VIP seating for residents of Chicago to watch their government at work.”
“In an era where the City is wrestling with contentious issues that raise complicated emotions for many, City Council can enforce rules for decorum against those who violate such rules — but should not engage in collective punishment against all residents because of a single meeting or the actions of a few.”
The Better Government Association said in a statement that recent visitors to council have been “confronted with new and confusing procedures for public attendance” and “any changes to policy and procedures should be undertaken only with public input and due deliberation.”
The group added it opposes protocols that divide seating into public and invitation-only 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,” the statement reads.
The frequent 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 was accosted at a public event.
A Nov. 7 committee meeting was arguably one of the most dramatic. Alderpersons were in part discussing an effort to put the future of the city’s long-standing sanctuary status up for a vote. The so-called Welcoming City Ordinance prohibits Chicago Police officers from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, or requiring residents to prove citizenship status.
It affects undocumented residents, and is not related to the influx of migrants, but has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about whether to keep supporting asylum seekers. Some frequent agitators have become regular fixtures at council meetings and have at times used offensive or xenophobic language to express opposition to migrants.
At that committee meeting, the lights were turned off, the gallery cleared, and the meeting paused after dozens of spectators were shouting and yelling. At one point, one person could be heard shouting that the council had started a “race war” in their handling of the migrant crisis.
A spokesperson for the Rules Committee says the seating arrangement change is a tweak to protocol, developed by the Sergeant-at-Arms, not an official amendment to the council’s Rules of Order, which would require City Council approval.
“These protocols were developed by the City Council Rules Chair and Sergeant-at-Arms after listening to members of the Council and hearing their concerns about personal safety and repeated disruptions of Council proceedings that impeded the work of the body,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a statement Thursday. “We recognize the Council’s efforts to preserve its ability to perform its sworn duties and uphold the sacred right of public participation in legislative proceedings. This remains a work in progress, and we expect the Council will continue to work collectively to strike the right balance.”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics and government for WBEZ.