Amid protests this summer over police brutality and civil rights, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the middle of the night removed statues of Christopher Columbus that had become a focal point of the demonstrations.

Lightfoot also formed a committee to conduct a thorough review to assess if other public art should be removed or changed and promised the newly formed Monuments Project Advisory Committee would begin “an inclusive and democratic public dialogue” about the future of Chicago’s internationally known public art collection.

But during its first six months of work, the committee’s deliberations were kept secret. In fact, the mayor’s monuments committee was designed that way.

“What’s said here, stays here,” is a message city officials delivered to the committee members at their Oct. 14 meeting, according to a slim, 24-page packet of committee agendas and minutes records City Hall released recently to the Better Government Association.

The committee is tasked with identifying any public monuments linked to white supremacy and injustice that “warrant attention” and could be removed. It ultimately flagged 41 problematic artworks, including statues of Columbus as well as Presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley.

But despite Lightfoot’s transparency pledge, there was no public notice of the committee’s six meetings, no record which 30 committee members attended or any details about what they recommended during roughly 12 hours of online deliberations.

The public had no opportunity to observe or offer any input at the private meetings — none of which were recorded in audio or video form, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Communications Director Christine Carrino said.

“The Chicago Monuments Project advisory committee is not a ‘public body’ and therefore the [Open Meetings] Act’s requirements do not apply to it,” Carrino told the BGA in a statement, explaining the city’s refusal to release committee recommendations and reports, attendance rosters and any recordings of its first six meetings.

Given the intense civic interest surrounding Chicago’s public art, Lightfoot could have provided public access, said Benjamin Silver, an attorney for the Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonpartisan watchdog organization based in DuPage County.

“Even if they are not subject to the Open Meetings Act, there is the question of voluntary transparency, especially with something like this,” he said. “They have now flagged 41 monuments. And whether anyone agrees or disagrees with those choices, I think there is a public interest in knowing how they reached that decision.”

“With closed meetings, it’s not possible to do that,” Silver added. “It’s for the city to answer why they would want to do this behind closed doors.”

Public input phase begins

Carrino said the process has now entered a new phase seeking public participation.

On February 17, the city unveiled a web page encouraging visitors to “share your thoughts.” It asks citizens to fill out an online feedback form, or post on social media using the hashtag: #ChicagoMonuments.

The web page also links to a “speaker series” of webinars by committee members and to a schedule of “Drop-in Conversations” at which “Chicagoans are invited to pre-register to participate in a one-hour discussion with Chicago Monuments Project Advisory Committee Members.”

There, the city website says, “you can ask questions, share your thoughts, and learn more about the Chicago Monuments Project.”

Despite being considered one of the 19th century's greatest masterpieces of public art, Lincoln Park's "Standing Lincoln" is on a list of 41 monuments identified as potentially problematic by the Chicago Monuments Project. (David Jackson/BGA)
​​​​​Despite being considered one of the 19th century’s greatest masterpieces of public art, Lincoln Park’s “Standing Lincoln” is on a list of 41 monuments identified as potentially problematic by the Chicago Monuments Project. (David Jackson/BGA)

“The project has now moved into the public engagement phase, holding online conversations and encouraging feedback from all Chicagoans on these and other monuments under the city’s management,” Carrino said in her statement. “The committee has suggested a list of monuments for further conversations, but no recommendations have been made regarding any of them.”

Records provided by the city in response to the BGA’s request suggest the list of 41 problematic monuments was provided by Lightfoot administration officials — and not generated by the artists and cultural figures on the advisory committee. “From a basic list of approximately 500 outdoor objects, we’ve identified over 40,” city administrators told committee members at their second Zoom meeting on Oct. 1.

Carrino said City Hall staff “did the initial assessment to make sense of the material.”

The staff assessment then went to the three committee co-chairs: cultural affairs commissioner Mark Kelly, Landmarks Illinois CEO Bonnie McDonald and museum curator Jennifer Scott.

After that, the list of problematic monuments went to the entire advisory committee, which was asked “to workshop” the examples, Carrino said.

From there, “adjustments were made and additional artworks were added based on staff and committee input before the information was made available to the public,” Carrino said.

A Lightfoot press release and the committee minutes state the committee members would make recommendations and produce a “Final Report” with “documentation of the process and [their] recommendations.”

But in its FOIA response to the BGA, City Hall said there was no such final report or documentation of recommendations.

Lightfoot formed her public monuments advisory committee as she was coming under fire for separate alleged violations of Illinois’ Open Meetings Act.

In June 2020, the BGA filed a lawsuit alleging the City Council violated the Open Meetings Act during COVID-19 telephone briefings with Lightfoot. The city contested the BGA claim but Lighfoot committed to no longer hold additional meetings outside of public view. The BGA lawsuit is pending.

A month before that suit was filed, the news organization ProPublica Illinois filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office over Lightfoot conference calls with the City Council to discuss the pandemic. The attorney general upheld that complaint in September.

In both cases, Lightfoot’s administration denies it violated the law.

During nationwide protests over police use of force after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, Lightfoot initially resisted calls to take down Chicago’s Columbus statues, saying they should stand as teaching tools.

“I think that the way we educate our young people, in particular, about their history is to educate them about the full history,” Lightfoot said on June 18.

But after Chicago’s Columbus statue demonstrations frayed into violent encounters between protesters and police, and Lightfoot’s home became a rallying site in July, Lightfoot ordered the middle-of-the-night removal of Columbus statues from Grant and Arrigo parks, then from a third site on the Southeast Side.

“This step is about an effort to protect public safety and to preserve a safe space for an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” Lightfoot said at the time.

Lightfoot then announced the Monuments Project Advisory Committee as “a formal process to assess the monuments, memorials, and murals across Chicago’s communities, and develop a framework for a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity.”

She called the committee “a vehicle to address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history.”

‘These conversations … can be painful’

Illinois’ Open Meetings Act guarantees citizen access to “all meetings at which any business of public body is discussed or acted upon in any way,” except under limited and specific circumstances.

Under the act, a “meeting” can include “any gathering, whether in person or by video or audio conference, telephone call, electronic means (such as, without limitation, electronic mail, electronic chat, and instant messaging), or other means of contemporaneous interactive communication.”

A 1997 Illinois Appellate Court opinion known as Board of Regents v. Reynard ruled that committees created to advise a government body are considered a public body for purposes of the Open Meetings Act.

Silver and other attorneys said it can be challenging to prove in court that an advisory committee qualifies as a public body. Compliance with the law hinges on how the members were appointed and what decision-making authority they were given, among other questions.

Committee member Cesáreo Moreno, the Visual Arts Director of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, said he was glad the committee’s first six months of deliberations were private, so that members could share thoughts and emotions without having to worry about being misinterpreted.

“A lot of the topics that come up are deep, they’re private and they’re about your identity,” Moreno said. “These conversations are uncomfortable and can be painful for many people and certainly ignite responses from individuals that are emotional.”

But now the committee is on a new footing as it fields input from citizens and community leaders, he said. “We’re on the first step of a long journey.”

David Jackson was a senior investigative reporter at the Illinois Answers Project from 2020 to 2022.