The Odd Couple of Open Meetings activists teams up against a closed City Council
Originally Published in the Chicago Reader
For those who say I’m too tough on Mayor Emanuel, I’d like to take the time to credit him for doing something I never thought possible: uniting Andy Thayer and Rick Garcia around a common cause.
So, OK, the cause that binds these two longtime activists is a lawsuit they’ve filed against the city for packing City Council chambers with payrollers and schoolkids, thus blocking them from attending a pair of recent council meetings.
I guess one can’t be too picky when searching for ways to praise the mayor.
As activists go, Thayer and Garcia are as different as day and night. Thayer’s an unapologetic rabble-rouser who’s been on the front lines of almost every left-of-center street demonstration for the past two decades, including protests against war and police torture as well as protests for marriage equality—an issue he championed long before it was fashionable.
He’s generally the guy in the T-shirts and jeans bellowing into the bullhorn while the cops haul him away to jail. He’s been arrested for civil disobedience so many times he’s lost count.
In contrast, Garcia favors Brooks Brothers suits and building clout through his political connections, usually with members of the Democratic Party, to help advance the cause of gay rights.
Generally, one disdains the tactics of the other. Yet they’re coplaintiffs in a lawsuit, filed last month, charging the city with violating the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Here’s how they allege it went down.
At 8:30 AM on May 18, Thayer says he arrived at City Hall to attend a council meeting. The meeting didn’t start until ten, and Thayer says he and his allies were first in line, waiting for guards to open the doors and let them into the chambers.
He was there to protest a TIF deal under which the mayor proposed to spend about $16 million on an upscale high-rise at Montrose and Clarendon, just a few blocks from the lake.
But by ten, the full council meeting had started, and “the guards still made us wait in line even though there were empty seats in the chambers,” says Thayer. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. It’s a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act.'”
As the name suggests, the Open Meetings Act is the state law that requires public bodies like the City Council to open their meetings to the public.
Finally, after 11 AM, Thayer was let into the chambers. “There were empty seats with signs on them that said RESERVED,” Thayer says. “I don’t know who they were reserved for.”
The council didn’t discuss the TIF deal—it was directed to the finance committee. But looking to draw press attention, Thayer and his allies unfolded a banner that read NO TIFS FOR THE RICH.
“We weren’t arrested,” Thayer says. “They just kicked us out of the meeting.”
The council was set to pass a transgender rights bill. “We were there to see a historic event, clap, shake hands, and go to lunch,” Garcia says.
They arrived early—about 8:45 AM—and were among the first in line to be admitted to the chambers. Coincidentally, this was the meeting when the council actually passed the $16 million TIF deal, and the lobby soon filled with protesters.
Garcia says he and his friends should have been the first people let into the council chambers. Instead, the guards made them form a line behind the metal detector. There, they watched as a steady stream of latecomers, many of them schoolchildren, were ushered in ahead of them.
“I stayed in line until about noon and then gave up—I don’t think they let anyone into that meeting who had been waiting in line,” Garcia says. “They used those kids to keep people out of the chambers—probably because the mayor didn’t want to take the chance that he’d have to hear people protesting that TIF.”
Though he wasn’t there to protest the TIF deal, Garcia says he was upset. “I’m very much a mainstream guy—I put on my Brooks Brothers suit and I play by the rules. Well, if I play by the rules, the mayor has to play by the rules. And the rules say a public meeting has to be open to the public, even if they’re there to protest the mayor.”
Through a mutual friend, Thayer learned that Garcia had not been allowed into the meeting. Eventually, they met to talk about filing a lawsuit. “Andy and I have not always agreed about tactics over the years,” says Garcia. “But when he asked if I’d join his lawsuit, I said, ‘Absofuckinglutely!’ I’m sorry, but even the mayor can’t keep the public out of a public meeting.”
As they see it, blocking access to the council is akin to routinely denying public records requests—as the Emanuel administration has frequently done in the last few years.
“You’re keeping the public in the dark,” says Thayer.
Thayer and Garcia’s suit charges that the City Council “violated the Open Meetings Act by holding a closed meeting on May 18 and June 22.”
The city’s Law Department said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation—but also said the city “fully and completely complies with the Open Meetings Act.”
The case has come before circuit court judge Diane Larsen. Because they claim the meetings were illegal, Thayer and Garcia are asking the judge to void all the council actions taken on May 18 and June 22. That includes the TIF deal and the transgender ordinance—another irony that’s not lost on Garcia.
“They’ll just have to pass it again,” Garcia says. “I’ll come down to watch.”
Presumably, on that day the mayor will let ordinary citizens into the chambers on a first come, first seated basis. v