CHICAGO (CBS) — The Better Government Association is suing the Chicago City Council, accusing Mayor Lori Lightfoot and aldermen of violating the Open Meetings Act, by holding a series of private conference calls since late March.
The lawsuit comes two days after Lightfoot blasted an unnamed alderman for recording and leaking a May 31 conference call in which she traded profanities with Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) as the mayor and all 50 aldermen were discussing the city’s response to widespread looting.
According to the BGA lawsuit, the mayor and aldermen have had at least two other private conference calls since the end of March, after Gov. JB Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order, and the City Council began holding its monthly meetings via Zoom.
The BGA claimed the meetings “violated nearly every meaningful OMA requirement, including the statutory obligation to provide notice of meetings, to allow public comment at meetings, and to make meetings ‘convenient’ and ‘open’ to the public,” according to the lawsuit.
“The Open Meetings Act ensures that the actions of our government are not conducted in improper secrecy,” said Josh Burday, an attorney with Loevy and Loevy, which is representing the BGA in the lawsuit filed Friday morning in Cook County Circuit Court. “Transparency in government is critical, and the right of the public to attend and speak at meetings ensures that transparency.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the City Council to open any similar conference calls to the public in the future, to provide an opportunity for public comment, and to provide proper advanced notice and agendas of such meetings. The BGA also is asking a judge to order the City Council to release the written minutes of any such meetings the mayor and aldermen have held already, as well as any recordings of the calls.
“Public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business. Actions and deliberations of public bodies must be taken openly in order to promote transparency and accountability at all levels of government. Such openness is crucial to democracy,” the lawsuit states.
The Open Meetings Act defines a meeting of any government body as “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, of a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business or, for a 5-member public body, a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business.”
For the Chicago City Council, a majority of a quorum is 14 aldermen.
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the BGA lawsuit, but on Wednesday denied Lopez’s claim the conference calls violated the Open Meetings Act.
“The telephone conferences you are referring to were organized and hosted by various administration officials to provide COVID-related informational updates to the aldermen. These updates were arranged and carried out solely for the administration to convey information about the status of COVID-related efforts and field questions on those efforts. For a meeting to be subject to The Open Meetings Act, it must include deliberation (for example, legislative debate) and/or action (for example, a vote), which did not occur on these calls,” press secretary Anel Ruiz stated in an email.
Lopez has said the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor should investigate. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office this week confirmed the Public Access Counselor has received a complaint about the private briefings with aldermen, and is looking into the issue.
Lightfoot and Lopez had a heated exchange during the May 31 conference call, when he accused the city of being ill-prepared for the violence, and expressed concerns looters could start targeting homes. Looters pillaged shops throughout the city as peaceful protesters were taking to the streets on the last weekend in May in memory of George Floyd, who died as a police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for several minutes during an arrest on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Lightfoot did not answer Lopez’s questions in the call, prompting an angry exchange.
“It’s not something you ignore. This is a question that I have,” Lopez said.
That’s when the call turned profane.
“I think you’re 100% full of s***, is what I think,” Lightfoot said.
Lopez was infuriated.
“F*** you, then. Who are you to tell me I’m full of s***?” he said. “Maybe you should come out and see what’s going on.”
Warning: The following audio file contains profanity. Audience discretion is advised.
The profane argument was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, and WTTW later obtained a recording of the call. On Monday, a source provided CBS 2 with a snippet of the call, including the foul-mouthed back-and-forth between Lopez and Lightfoot.
On Wednesday, the mayor was asked if she regretted her use of profanity. She did not directly answer the question, but said that the conversation was meant to be private, and said she and the aldermen need to be able to have candid conversations.
“There were a lot of incredible emotions that were shared in that call by fellow aldermen, now all of whom don’t feel secure or safe coming together with their colleagues, because of one individual who decided to illegally tape a conversation that was intended to be a private conversation among all of us,” she said.
Lightfoot did not directly accuse Lopez of leaking the recordings, but clearly suggested he was behind it.
“One of the aldermen, and I think we know who it is, illegally taped and then shared only that portion of the conversation that served his purposes,” she said. “Shame on him. Shame on him. That’s what I say.”
Lopez denied recording and leaking the call, and accused the mayor of hypocrisy for saying it was illegal, claiming her staff has recorded every Zoom meeting with aldermen during the pandemic. He also claimed the calls the mayor has been holding with all 50 aldermen during the pandemic are a violation of the Open Meetings Act, and accused her of trying to distract from the substance of the call.
“The Zoom meetings invite 51 elected officials and nearly a dozen staff, yet Lightfoot’s anger is once again directed solely at me because I refuse to accept her failures. Furthermore, I do not believe her anger and outrage over these leaks has nothing to do with my colleagues. It has to do with her inability to spin the narrative in a way that benefits her,” Lopez wrote in an email to CBS 2. “The curtain has been pulled back, revealing the truth behind the chaos.”