Many meetings canceled, but municipal business goes on

  • Gallery seats for the public at a Palatine village council meeting last week were spaced six feet apart to practice social distancing while the council convened for business.

      Gallery seats for the public at a Palatine village council meeting last week were spaced six feet apart to practice social distancing while the council convened for business. Bob Susnjara | Staff Photographer

  • A sign outside the council chambers at Palatine Village Hall explains social distancing measures in place during a village council meeting last week.

      A sign outside the council chambers at Palatine Village Hall explains social distancing measures in place during a village council meeting last week. Bob Susnjara | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/21/2020 7:41 PM

Regularly scheduled meetings of municipal governments aren't so regular in light of the new coronavirus.

Many public bodies, such as the village boards or city councils in Arlington Heights, Elgin and St. Charles, canceled meetings last week, putting off consideration of issues such as grant applications, conditional use permits, special taxing districts and recreational marijuana sales.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Members of governments that did host meetings in person, such as the city of Naperville and the village of Palatine, sat in alternating chairs or spaced out gallery seats for public participants to practice 6-foot social distancing.

In some cases, these governments tabled matters on which members of the public were expected to speak, such as a conditional-use permit for a car repair shop and a separate rezoning request, both of which would have been up for votes in Naperville.

Other governments, such as the Chicago Executive Airport board, began to turn to conference-call and speakerphone participation in meetings after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order that allowed such changes by suspending some elements of the Open Meetings Act.

"I think it's a pragmatic approach and it allows business to function," airport board Chairman D. Court Harris said after the session Wednesday, which drew an audience of three spectators in a room with seats spread out to meet social distancing guidelines. "The role of government is to serve the people, so there's still things that need to get done."

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Amid all of these changes, elected officials and municipal employees are finding ways to function.

Governments such as the villages of Libertyville, Lincolnshire and Woodridge, among many others, have issued emergency declarations that give purchasing power and contract-approval authority to mayors or village managers so necessities can be provided without the requirement of a full public body's approval. These declarations also line up local governments to apply for state or federal disaster relief in the event funding becomes available.

Village halls, libraries and park district centers have closed their doors, especially after Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday issued an order for Illinoisans to stay at home starting at 5 p.m. Saturday. But local government leaders are making emergency staffing changes to ensure garbage is still being collected, water is still flowing and electricity still turns on at homes serviced by their governments.

Many municipalities, such as the city of Aurora, also are taking extra steps to preserve these essentials by halting disconnections of water service and waiving missed payment fees.

The day-to-day is significant, but so is the appearance of a stable, operational government, Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said.

"It's really important at this time that the community has confidence that they have a functioning government," Chirico said. "We can't just stop; we need to continue to function for lots of reasons -- not just people's comfort, but because we're going to have a hard time with jobs, our local economy -- and if we stop functioning as a government, it stops. Everything stops along with us."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In St. Charles, the cancellation last week of regular meetings of the city council and government operations committee led to the postponement of a budget presentation and the delay of a controversial vote on whether to allow an existing medical marijuana dispensary to also sell recreational cannabis.

The vote on whether to permit adult-use cannabis sales at the Zen Leaf shop at 3714 Illinois Ave. now won't take place until next month at the earliest, and all public meetings for the rest of March have been canceled.

That's the case in Elgin, too, where Mayor David Kaptain and Fire Chief Robb Cagann have been providing daily video updates about virus response and city actions to help vulnerable populations.

In St. Charles, the next city council meeting is scheduled for April 6, but officials are encouraging community members to check the city's website before attending.

Despite these initial meeting cancellations, business can't be suspended forever, elected officials say. Some communities have new fiscal years about to start this spring and will need to approve budgets. All must find ways to continue to allow public participation, even in an age when remote connections and online or phone access are all that allows municipal business to go on.

"We have to do it safely," Chirico said. "But we have to be a functioning government."

• Daily Herald staff writers Bob Susnjara, Lauren Rohr, Elena Ferrarin, Christopher Placek and Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.

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