Imagine you are the boss of a 50-member company. You’ve got to get every employee on a call to vote on a plan you have. And there’s got to be witnesses, too. In fact, anyone who wants to watch this meeting of yours has a legal right to follow along.
That’s the predicament many elected government bodies are facing in the age of social distancing. You can’t gather in a room together, but you also can’t pass laws in the dark with no one watching.
Wednesday morning, the Chicago City Council had its first virtual meeting. It clocked in under 30 minutes, giving aldermen just enough time to say the Pledge of Allegiance, approve new rules allowing them to meet over the computer and listen to members of the public gripe about life in the age of coronavirus. (“We are all crammed on the really small sidewalks with dozens and dozens of others,” said Daria Porter as she complained about the city’s “rash reactive decision” to close the Lakefront.)
And save for the occasional unmuted mic and the blaring echo of someone who has multiple feeds running, it went surprisingly well.
There were no distracting home backgrounds to ogle, as many aldermen had a simple black backdrop of the city skyline with a single identifying marker: their ward number. No one showed up in pajamas, just suits and ties like a standard meeting in the council chambers. And there was no jarring screaming in the background from the citizens who were lucky enough to snag one of the 10 spots for public comment.
But the public was only to be heard, not seen. And while they spoke to aldermen and the mayor about life in the age of coronavirus, those watching only saw a big white countdown screen alerting us when their three minutes was up.
Many who spoke lived in the Lincoln Park and Bucktown area and complained about North Side scrap yard General Iron’s continued operation during a respiratory pandemic.
The entire production felt like a dress rehearsal before the real event. And it pretty much was, with a little over a 1,000 unique viewers, according to an estimate from the clerk’s office.
The full City Council is scheduled to do another run next Wednesday.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.