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Cook County and City Hall try a radical idea: Listening

Saturday, July 08, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Andy Shaw

Two historically inhospitable bastions of insularity—the Cook County Board and the Chicago City Council—are slowly and at times grudgingly tearing down walls and inviting the public into their legislative deliberations. In other words, taking steps to listen to real people whose lives are affected by their decisions.

The County Board is moving proactively, the City Council reactively, but the result in both legislative bodies will be more public accessibility, and that's an important reform step.

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At the county, Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston is proposing an online "witness slipping" initiative that will let residents and advocacy groups weigh in on pending legislation and even testify online. County officials are exploring the technology required to implement a system like the one the Illinois Legislature uses.

"Our purpose," Suffredin says, "is to encourage more Cook County residents to express their opinions on legislative matters." It's strongly supported by the Better Government Association's policy team, which is working with the county on the details.

Ten states have forms of remote testimony for constituents who can't show up in person to share their views, and it's been a valuable tool for people to make their voices heard, even when their opinions have limited impact on big, complicated issues like a state budget crisis.

"It's vitally important that local governments in Illinois embrace technology as democracy moves into an increasingly digital era," says Josh Sharp of the Illinois Press Association. "Taxpayers who previously wrote letters or placed phone calls to their elected officials to voice their opinion about a particular measure will now have the ability to weigh in online. It's a practice that works relatively well in Springfield, and we welcome its swift approval in Cook County."

Why it matters: County government represents more than 5 million people. It's bigger than 27 states and its operating budget of $4.4 billion is larger than Delaware's. But last year two-thirds of the board's committee meetings heard testimony from only one person, or no one, and those committees deal with major housing, criminal justice, law enforcement and fiscal issues. That's a troubling but understandable example of civic disengagement.

Restricting public input to in-person testimony limits access to those with enough time, mobility and flexibility to travel downtown, an obvious impediment to representative government. In Cook County, where young people, low-income residents and new arrivals have minimal contact with local government, online slipping can give them a voice if they choose to exercise it.

In Chicago, where aldermen have been more resistant to public access, witness slipping and other citizen participation initiatives are a ways off. For now the only momentum comes grudgingly in response to a lawsuit and subsequent court ruling mandating inclusion of public comments at regular City Council meetings.

The initial proposal is a resolution dedicating 30 minutes at the beginning of every meeting, but critics call the time limit insufficient, noting that aldermen frequently spend an hour or two on eulogies for retirees and decedents, and nonsubstantive ceremonial tributes. As a result, the lawsuit will continue until that issue and several others are resolved.

Time will tell if the city's public comment protocol and online slipping at the county actually empower the voiceless, influence key decisions and lead to greater transparency. But both measures will give local citizens more access to their legislators than most other cities and counties offer.

Steps like these are also important if local officials really want to change the image of a city government best known for its corrupt "Chicago Way" and a county many still refer to pejoratively as "Crook."

Andy Shaw is CEO of the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based watchdog organization. Twitter: @andyshawbga



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