CITY HALL — Uptown activists filed suit Thursday against the City Council, charging they were systematically blocked out of May and June meetings in an attempt to silence their objections against a development.
The activists say that police allowed in "dozens of interns ... enough to close the chamber to the rest of the citizenry."
"Open to the public means open to the public, not open to City Hall staffers," said the activists' lawyer, Alan Mills, of the Uptown People's Law Center.
The suit, filed Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court, claims the Council violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act in an attempt to nullify a $15.8 million Tax Increment Finance funding deal for developer Montrose Clarendon Partners LLC that was approved last month.
Andy Thayer, of Uptown Tent City Organizers, who joined longtime activist Rick Garcia in filing the suit, said the Council stifled debate while "trying to pass something that was a deeply unpopular measure."
At a City Hall news conference Thursday outside the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Garcia said he got to the June meeting 90 minutes before it was to start and was fourth in an apparent line to get in, but instead police allowed in dozens of interns in order to fill seats and block the group's members.
Garcia called it an "intentional icing out of the public." He and Thayer said they were not even allowed spots in the upstairs gallery, glassed off from the rest of the Council Chamber.
"Frankly, this is a game that has been played by the City Council for years," said Mills.
The development at 4400-4424 and 4401-4415 N. Clarendon Ave. was actually the subject of an extended and sometimes raucous debate the day before in the Finance Committee. The approved proposal includes a 26-story mixed-use building with 381 residential units, a grocery store and 278 parking spaces.
Mills, however, insisted the same provisions for public comment also extended to the full City Council the following day, even though the Council has long restricted public debate at monthly meetings where business is finalized.
"The city's business is supposed to be done in public," Mills said. "Far too much of it is done in backroom dealings."
Mills said the suit also asked that all business conducted at the May and June meetings be nullified, citing a passage in the state statute allowing a court judgment "declaring null and void any final action taken at a closed meeting in violation of this act."
"When you're trying to do something unpopular, you try to do it outside the view of the public," Mills added.
Marc Kaplan, of North Side Action for Justice, pointed to how the Uptown area had voted 79 percent against TIFs in a 2012 referendum. "The community has spoken on this issue," he said.
"This is something that was rushed," said Ryne Poelker, of Uptown Tent City Organizers, citing how even Ald. Edward Burke (14th) had acknowledged a sense of "urgency" to get the deal done so that developers wouldn't be subject to new, stricter laws taking effect on affordable housing.
Poelker said even Airbnb drivers, in another matter on the June agenda, were "given priority," over Uptown activists in line, "and we were cut out."
Uptown activists did gain access to the May City Council meeting, but were ushered out by police when they began chanting, "No TIFs for the rich!"
Thayer chided Emanuel over his campaign pledge to have "the most open, accountable and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen."
"The mayor has promised transparency over and over again. In this, he has failed," Thayer said. "Things are even worse than they were under [former Mayor] Richard M. Daley."
Thayer said he was "very confident" a Cook County judge would side against the city, and Mills likewise insisted the Illinois Open Meetings Act is clear on the issues addressed.
Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said he could not comment on a pending suit, but insisted that the city "fully and completely complies with the Open Meetings Act."
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