CHICAGO — The shuffling of papers and the quiet murmur of small talk broke the silence of the nearly empty Chicago City Council chambers as a handful of city staffers filed in for a Traffic Control and Safety Committee meeting Dec. 5, 2007.

Of the 14 members assigned to the committee, only three showed up that morning: committee Chairman Patrick O’Connor (40th), Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

The trio sat at the front table facing the empty chamber’s 50 seats and listened as City Clerk Miguel del Valle presented a measure aimed at curbing counterfeit city stickers. The aldermen asked a few questions, then voted to approve the measure to raise fines for counterfeiters. The knock of the gavel ended the meeting in less than 20 minutes.

It would seem this meeting went off without a hitch.

Except for one thing: The aldermen broke state law, experts say.

According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, a public body like this committee must have “a majority of a quorum,” or a minimum number of members present for public business to be discussed or voted on, said Heather Kimmons, assistant public access counselor for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

At the traffic committee meeting, for instance, five members had to be present to comply with Illinois law.

An investigation by Chicago Talks and jointly published with The Beachwood Reporter has discovered that Chicago City Council committees violated this law at least four times over a four-month span. Investigators attended 21 committee meetings from September to mid-December 2007, recording each session, counting the aldermen present and documenting what occurred. [See also “Off The Record: Chicago Council Committees Evade The Law, Experts Say”]

Besides the December traffic committee meeting, there weren’t enough aldermen present at the Sept. 26 Ethics Committee, the Nov. 16 Human Relations Committee and the Dec. 10 Aviation Committee.

Even more frequently, aldermen violated their own rules by meeting without a quorum, or half of the committee, as required under the City Council’s Rules of Order.

The investigation found that nearly half of the 21 committee meetings investigators documented did not have enough members present to vote under their own rules, yet they did.

For instance, the traffic committee meeting that violated Illinois law also broke the City Council’s own rules. Seven members had to be present for the meeting to be called to order, but that didn’t stop the three aldermen from conducting business.

Ald. O’Connor (40th) said no law or rule was broken because the committee didn’t take a roll call to determine whether there were enough members to conduct business. Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) agreed, saying: “Unless someone calls for a quorum, the assumption is that the quorum is present.”

But Kimmons, of the attorney general’s office, said one way or another, a public body must, under state law, do two things at every meeting: make sure there are enough members present for legal votes and document in writing who was there, how they voted and the details of the meeting. It is these minutes that the public should be able to view days, weeks or even years after a meeting.

“We tell public bodies, ‘If you don’t have a quorum present, just dismiss because you can’t take any action anyway,’” Kimmons said.

Without a quorum, the actions taken by the committee legally never occurred, said Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, a Chicago watchdog group. Whether the committee approved a new stop sign or doled out millions of dollars in taxpayer money, without enough members present, the action can be challenged in court, he said.

But Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Department of Law, said the state statute applies only to the full City Council, not to any of its 19 committees. If the committees didn’t have enough members present, that’s not a problem legally, she said.

Hoyle cited three Illinois court decisions which she said upheld various pieces of legislation that had been passed despite the public bodies’ violating their own rules.

Ald. Ed Smith (28th), who chairs the Health Committee, agreed: “You can pass something without the quorum, and it’s perfectly legal because anything that’s passed in committee ultimately has to come to (the) City Council.”

But that’s not how other city councils, school boards and county commissions throughout Illinois conduct the public’s business.

Take the Champaign County Board, which doesn’t make any decisions without a quorum, said Steve Beckett, board member and chairman of the County Facilities Committee.

“There’s nothing illegal about the meeting if nobody shows up. What would be illegal is if they, in my judgment, attempted to take any actions on any items on the agenda,” said Beckett, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Critics of the lax attendance at committee meetings don’t understand why aldermen, who make $104,101 a year and earn a generous pension, can’t show up to committee meetings.

It’s “pathetic” that committee business is ever conducted without enough members present since so few are required to attend, said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonprofit legal organization that promotes civic involvement.

Stewart of the Better Government Association agrees: “They sit there and bristle at being called rubber stamps, but then they won’t fulfill the most obvious single job obligation they have. Committees are the lifeblood of legislative bodies. Apparently, many of them have better things to do.”

The way the Chicago City Council conducts business is “backwards,” said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman.

The lack of attendance means there’s no substantive debate on many important issues, Simpson said.

The committees’ “purpose is to discuss the legislation, perfect the legislation, offer amendments and produce a good piece of legislation,” Simpson said.

Instead of publicly debating the issues, this City Council works behind closed doors, decides it wants something passed and then holds a hearing, the former alderman said.

Current aldermen justify their lack of participation in committees with a number of reasons, from being busy in their wards to not needing to be involved in “routine” matters.

“The aldermen that attend, obviously, they’re doing their job,” O’Connor said. “Those who are not in attendance pretty well know these matters are not going to be controversial and will pass.”

Business in the City Council would “grind to a halt” if they didn’t do it this way, said Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

“Many of us believe that there’s no need for us to take time out of doing our work in the wards to attend committee meetings over non-controversial and pretty routine matters,” Moore said. “There’s an understanding that on certain things, there’s no need to have a quorum.”

All public bodies are faced with this dilemma, said Beckett, an eight-year member of the Champaign County Board.

“One of the frustrations of being on a board and being on a committee is that we will have business that we need to move along, and I always find it frustrating when people don’t show up for meetings. But when you don’t have a quorum, you don’t have a quorum,” said Beckett. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

>> For more, read the partner story at Beachwood

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