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City Council Doesn't Need No Stinking Quorums

Aldermen continue to hold committee meetings with as few as two members present, despite concerns raised by a watchdog group that the Chicago City Council is in violation of state law.

The Traffic Control and Safety Committee approved more than 200 agenda items at its last meeting. The 14-member committee lacked a quorum, said lawyer Jay Stewart, executive director of the watchdog group Better Government Association. Ald. Bernard L. Stone (50th) attended, as did Ald. Patrick J. O'Connor (40th), who chairs the committee.

After the Sept. 3rd meeting, which lasted less than 15 minutes, O'Connor said the committee did not violate the law by voting on agenda items, since neither he nor Stone called for a quorum. As long as none of the committee members ask for an official count during the meeting, aldermen can proceed, according to O'Connor's interpretation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Stewart of the Better Government Association said that he finds it disturbing that only two of 14 members of the traffic committee attended the meeting. He said committee members - who make more than $104,000 a year - should attend meetings. He disagrees with Chairman O'Connor's argument that running meetings like this is legal as long as no committee members call for a quorum.

"That's called creating your own reality," Stewart said.

An investigation earlier this year by the BGA, Chicago Talks and The Beachwood Reporter found that the traffic committee and many of the council's other 19 committees regularly conducted business with just a few aldermen present, causing some lawyers to question whether any of that action is, in fact, legal.

Stewart said meetings held without a quorum violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the City Council's Rules of Order.

"If quorums are unnecessary, why in God's name have a rule on it?" Stewart said.

Under the City Council's Rules of Order, half of the total number of members of a standing committee are required for a quorum. While the majority of committee members were not in attendance at the meeting last Wednesday, at least two had employees from their offices there. Maureen Paulson, of the office of Ald. Patrick J. Levar (45th), attended. Paulson said she was there to ensure that one of the items in the 45th ward won approval.

Levar could not be reached for comment.

O'Connor said after the meeting that the majority of the items the committee approved were not controversial and were recommended by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

"It's a very routine process this morning," O'Connor said.

While some aldermen contend that a majority of committee members do not need to be present for meetings during which mundane agenda items are voted on, Stewart disagrees.

"The law doesn't change dependent on the subject matter," Stewart said.

O'Connor said this is the way government works, and he made an analogy to the presidential campaigns of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). While critics would question why they are absent from congressional meetings, government officials often have other commitments that prevent them from attending public meetings.

"It's government," O'Connor said. "None of it's pretty."


* Out of Order: Council Committees Evade The Law
* Off the Record: Council Committees Evade The Law
* Public Payroll, Family Affairs: Aldermen Keep It Relative


Posted on September 15, 2008

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