Conducting City Council meetings virtually has its perks — but is the practice worth keeping?
Jason McGregor / Crain’s Chicago Business, and iStock photo
As COVID-19 cases have declined, Chicago’s downtown is beginning to transform from a pandemic ghost town into a bustling hub. And as more and more workers around the city face calls to return to the office, Chicago’s civic leaders are asking themselves: Can we really get more work done in person?
For much of the past two years, the City Council has met virtually, with aldermen implementing an historic new police oversight board, renaming DuSable Lake Shore Drive and passing a budget — all from the comfort of their homes, ward offices and even the dentist chair.
The switch to work from home has revealed some advantages, including fewer double-booked meetings, more time spent in wards and a wider range of experts available to hop online and testify on pending legislation.
Remote meetings also contributed to better aldermanic attendance, an analysis of records by Crain’s Chicago Business, The Daily Line and WBEZ has revealed. From 2015 through May 2019, the council’s overall attendance rate was 64%; from May 2019 through 2021, that rose to almost 86%.
But confining the sausage-making to Zoom has also revealed some limitations that all employers may face in allowing working from home to continue — keeping track of who’s really there, ensuring access is equitable and coping with communication issues.
A sudden switch
The switch to virtual kicked off as the pandemic began to sweep Illinois: The City Council held its first-ever Zoom meeting in April 2020 and didn’t meet again at City Hall for a year. Between May 2019 and the end of 2021, the council held about twice as many virtual meetings as it did in person. Even now, almost all committee meetings are still being held over Zoom.
It’s difficult to measure whether the council got more or less done in the virtual era. Since Mayor Lori Lightfoot was sworn in on May 20, 2019, committee chairs have been swapped out, new alliances formed and, in general, aldermen are now more freewheeling. The body is no longer a rubber stamp for the mayor’s agenda, and routine matters often get held up at the whim of a few aldermen.
But many say they liked the option to attend committee meetings virtually because it gave them the flexibility to balance the usual “alley alderman” duties at ward offices with legislative work without having to make the sometimes long commute downtown to City Hall. Balancing those duties was the top reason aldermen gave for skipping meetings before the pandemic.
Meeting remotely hasn’t been glitch-free. There have been poor connections, interruptions, ringing phones, crying babies and barking dogs. Nor have virtual meetings been entirely transparent: An alderman could be counted as present, but have their camera and microphone off for the entirety of a meeting. They could also log on just before adjournment and be counted present. And because meetings were streamed in Zoom’s “speaker” mode — with the video focusing on whomever is talking — the public had little sense of which aldermen were paying attention during a meeting.
“Keep it hybrid”
Ald. Derrick Curtis (18) is among the aldermen with the lowest attendance from May 2019 through 2021, but his rate was 14 percentage points higher than the last period, 2015 through May 2019. His current virtual attendance was also higher than in-person. He wants to keep Zoom as an option.
“If I have an event going on, I can leave that event for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, jump on Zoom and go right back to my event,” said Curtis, whose ward is on the Far Southwest Side.
Freshman Ald. Andre Vasquez (40) agreed. Substantive meetings like budget hearings and full City Council meetings should be in person, he said, because it’s good to be in the same room “really picking this apart and bouncing ideas with your colleagues in a way that I think is better for government.” But the past two years have demonstrated virtual is more efficient, effective, and economical, Vasquez said. “At the very least, keep it all hybrid. …. We’ve shown that it’s possible.”
But for others, the switch to virtual robbed them of a chance to iron out differences. Instead of rounding up support from colleagues by going desk-to-desk or office-to-office at the hall, vote-whipping was only possible via email, text or phone.
“We don’t get a chance to dialogue with each other,” bemoaned Ald. Carrie Austin (34), one of the council’s most senior members, whose attendance rate nearly doubled compared to last term. “But what can I say? Things change. I’m hoping that we go back to some kind of normalcy. I know it won’t be like it was.”
Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, interacts with a colleague at a City Council meeting on March 23, 2022. She said she’s hoping for opportunities for in-person collaboration moving forward. [Manuel Martinez / WBEZ]
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15), who ranked top in the last term, said he was happy to see remote meetings increase participation.
“The only byproduct of the pandemic that I’m thankful for is that it has spurred my colleagues to be more involved in committees and attendance and knowing what’s going on,” he said.
But he wants committee meetings to return in-person. Face-to-face meetings are “where the magic happens.” Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41) said he believes sitting behind a screen made some colleagues more outspoken in their criticism.
“A lot of people can be a bit … a little stronger, a little bolder and have more of a spine. But when in person, when you call them out — like I like to do — call them right out to their face, it’s a different story,” he said.
Switching to virtual cost the public some in-person facetime with officials, noted longtime City Hall press corps dean Bill Cameron, who spent decades covering City Hall as a radio reporter.
“It was convenient for us to have the virtual meetings. But it’s all the more important to be able to talk to aldermen and the mayor face to face during and after council meetings,” Cameron said.
Pat Doerr is the managing director of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, who has lobbied City Hall for at least a decade. He said the virtual era has made it “way harder to get feedback on any public policy.”
Lobbying aldermen for relief for the bars Doerr represented during the pandemic was an uphill climb, he said. He could no longer buttonhole an alderman for a quick question or to introduce a client. Offering testimony during hearings — which was as easy as scribbling on a piece of pink paper and stepping up to a microphone pre-pandemic — became a bureaucratic headache.
“You call and leave a voicemail on an answering machine in the council secretary’s office. They call you back the next morning,” Doerr said. “You scribble down over 20 digits of login codes, call in numbers and a participant number. If you miss the call, it’s almost impossible to get a call back with that information.”
Lobbyists and journalists say the switch to virtual meetings has limited their access to aldermen, which can make their jobs more difficult. [Manuel Martinez / WBEZ]
Going virtual also highlighted the digital divide.
“There’s an assumption that … virtual means that there’s more access,” former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said. But, not everyone has an internet connection or a computer to tune in to meetings. The switch to virtual also gave chairs latitude to alter agendas at “the 11th hour,” Ferguson said. There’s also little accountability for the aldermen who might be logged as “present” but have their cameras off and microphones muted.
Cook County commissioners have more rigorous standards that reformers suggest are worth adopting across the building at City Hall. That includes keeping cameras on “as part of the record, because being seen and being heard is extremely important,” said former County Board Secretary Matt DeLeon, who retired in July 2021. It’s also important to call the roll for substantive matters, he said.
“So that it’s crystal clear, you know, not only what is being considered, but what the position is of every member on that item,” DeLeon said.
At the City Council, a member has to ask for a roll call vote; otherwise, all those in favor of an item just say “aye” aloud.
“If we’re in a moment where we’re going to open up ourselves to kind of a new way of doing things, let’s look at how well the baselines of the old way are and whether, going to the new way, we should import some new features and parameters,” Ferguson said.
Editors’ note: This story has been updated to correct attendance rates for individual aldermen and the City Council’s overall attendance rate after aldermen were mistakenly counted as absent from meetings for which no records were available. This change increased the City Council’s overall attendance rate by 5 percentage points to 86% and shifted some aldermanic rankings. For more information, see this data explainer.
A.D. Quig covers politics and government for Crain’s Chicago Business. Erin Hegarty covers City Hall for The Daily Line. Claudia Morell is a metro reporter for WBEZ. The Daily Line editor Alex Nitkin contributed.
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