By: Diane Benjamin
Last December I wrote about Normal”s Public Comment policy: https://blnnews.com/2016/12/06/normals-illegal-public-comment-policy/
At least two citizens of Normal filed Requests for Review with Lisa Madigan’s Public Access office asking her to rule on their policy. I asked one of them if I could print both what the Town of Normal claimed and his response. Craig Stimpert agreed since he believes the citizens of Normal need to know the facts.
When a request is filed, the AG’s office decides whether further action by their office is warranted. in this case the answer was YES. An email was sent to Chris Koos on December 14, 2016, but Normal claims he never received it.
Side note: Part of Normal’s reasoning for limited public comment is citizens have numerous ways to reach their representatives, including email. Obviously email doesn’t always work. (Strike 1)
The big issues with Normal’s current policy are:
- Sign up two hours before a meeting
- Must speak about items on the agenda
- Only a total of 10 minutes is allocated
- Speakers can only appear once every 45 days
- Must mention if they are representing an organization
Normal’s policy is written to discourage citizens from speaking!
Who are they going to sign up with 2 hours before a meeting? They have to trek to Uptown, sign up, and then come back for the meeting?
Limiting comments to agenda items limits free speech. Public forums should be treated as arenas sacred to public discourse. Citizens have a right granted under the 1st Amendment to address their government for a redress of grievances. Obviously emails get “lost”.
10 minutes is a ridiculous amount of time for a town the size of Normal. At three minutes each – only 3 people get to speak.
The 45 days is the gag rule to ban citizen comments. A citizen who speaks tonight would not be eligible to speak again until April 17th. (Feb 7 days, March 31 days, Not eligible for the first April meeting, so they can’t speak until the second April meeting)
Worse, Normal paid their lawyer to write a 13 page response to the Attorney General’s office that basically says we are too busy to listen to citizens. We have way too much work to do to listen to pesky citizens. (Even though many of their meetings are 1/2 hour or less!)
You can see Normal’s complete response here: 45349-fwd-let-3 (Strike 2)
The policy of the Koos administration is condescending at best. Koos knows the citizens don’t approve of his massive spending for Uptown, his tax increases, and his future plans to spend even more. He doesn’t want citizens standing up to him and the compliant Council on video where other citizens will know what is said.
The citizen who filed this request for Review was allowed to respond to what Normal’s lawyer wrote. Below are some excerpts:
My complaint before your office has nothing to do with the preferred mode of communication for Council members nor is Council in any position to direct citizens on how they should communicate with their elected representatives. My concern is whether or not available channels of communication are obstructed, ignored or unduly burdensome for citizens who will in turn may walk away from the process. Citizens must be assured of open, honest and transparent channels of communication that protect our rights as citizens with the unhindered exchange of ideas.
Our form of government should encourage citizens to stand up and be counted. The public aspect of public comment ensures open, honest and transparent government. It is fundamental to our rights as citizens and existed long before any form of electronic communication was ever conceived. Government officials have a right to a preferred communication mode with citizens, but they must in the process encourage and protect public comment.
The 45-day rule, however, is the most problematic of the items I’ve petitioned before your office. Likewise, Mr. Day has spent the majority of his response trying to defend it. He has not made his case for keeping the rule. I know of no other municipality that has such a rule. It is clearly restrictive. Unlike the other rules that are burdensome, this rule is denying people the right to speak. I have cited my personal experience with this rule that I have since learned was a misunderstanding of the rule. Let me be clear. My complaint is not about the exceptions or violations of the rule. My complaint is with respect to the rule itself that is clearly restrictive of free speech. Government has no right to control the frequency of public comment speakers. The Illinois Open Meetings Act guarantees citizens this right and it is the responsibility of government to enact rules to protect it, not restrict it. I ask for a binding opinion from your office to resolve this impasse between citizens and their government in the town of Normal.
See Mr. Stimpert’s entire response HERE
Illinois frequently writes vague laws where interpretations change over time. The Open Meetings Act is no exception. Public Comment rules have evolved to Walk In, Sign Up, Speak for 3-5 minutes, end of rules. If Normal doesn’t change their policy to this, call it STRIKE 3.
Normal doesn’t want to hear from citizens in public. Their preferable method of communication is in secret. If citizens see other outraged citizens, like the ones who spoke during to Portillos give-away, more citizens might speak up. Maintaining their version of decorum means limiting dissent. Normal is still in America, right? Evidently Koos and company would rather not admit they work for the citizens, they consider citizens only as a piggy bank.
The only remaining question is, how many months or years will it take Lisa Madigan’s office to issue a ruling?
Citizens can get the gag order lifted much faster. Dump Koos for Marc Tiritilli and elect new representatives to the Council. It’s way past time to impose term limits.