URBANA – In July 2021, when in-person City Council meetings resumed briefly, residents requested that the City continue allowing remote public input (such as via Zoom) in addition to the usual in-person public input to increase accessibility for public participation. Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin was quick to shut down the suggestion, stating that it is not possible under the Illinois Open Meeting Act (OMA).
At the July 6th, 2021 Council meeting Mayor Marlin told City Council members and the public:
“On the issue of the hybrid meeting or continuing with Zoom public input, it’s the opinion of both our City Attorney and folks I’ve consulted with at the Illinois Municipal League that once the overall emergency declaration is lifted for the state that Zoom input will no longer be an option under the Open Meetings Act as currently written. And we need to be very, very careful to comply with the Open Meetings Act, and the most legally secure position for us at this point is to resume our public meetings in in-person public input. And rather than going from one type of meeting to another and then potentially having to change once again. So, we welcome public input. Again, people are welcome to email Council members and we’ve done as much as we can to improve accessibility for those who do attend the meetings.”
When asked by members of the public to clarify how allowing both in-person and remote public input at in-person Council meetings would be a violation of the OMA, Mayor Marlin and City Attorney David Wesner remained silent. This is not the only time Marlin has attempted to restrict members of the public from addressing the Council (article: Attorney General determines Mayor Marlin and Urbana City Council violated the OMA).
After just six in-person Council meetings in July and August 2021, Council resumed remote meetings due to an increase in COVID-19 cases.
On April 4th, 2022, in-person Council meetings resumed and once again, members of the public called for options to give input both in-person and remotely via Zoom or phone.
Ward 6 Council member Grace Wilkens called for Urbana to take down barriers to public participation and asked for a much better explanation of why Urbana is not allowing remote and in-person options for public input.
Urbana resident, Tracy Chong asked Mayor Marlin and City Attorney David Wesner to explain Marlin’s statement in July 2021 where she said that “Zoom input will no longer be an option under the Open Meetings Act as currently written.”
Similar to last year, Marlin and Wesner could not provide an explanation of why both in-person and remote public input at in-person Council meetings would be a violation of the OMA.
Instead, Marlin seemed to backtrack and said:
“And as you know, in the past you did receive a memo regarding hybrid meetings. I don’t believe I ever said it was a violation, I said we didn’t know if it was at that time, but it is also a question as you know of time, of logistics, expense, and staffing, and you had a memo on that last, was it last summer…”
At the April 18th, 2022 Council Meeting, when Ms. Chong called out the discrepancies in Mayor Marlin’s previous claims, Marlin tried to obfuscate by changing the conversation to the legalities of remote meetings instead of addressing the issue of public participation options.
Mayor Marlin said:
“I’d like to address the claims made by Tracy Chong tonight, and I reject what you said. I told the truth last summer, and it remains true today. When I had questions about remote meetings and options for remote public input I did consult with the city attorney, I did consult with the Illinois Municipal League, both had questions and were not certain at the time and it currently stands today, the only authority we have in the City of Urbana to hold a remote meeting is by virtue of the authority of the state wide emergency declaration made by the Governor, and that is renewed on a monthly basis. There was a bill in the Illinois General Assembly that failed to make it out this session that would have given individual municipalities an opportunity to make decisions about remote meetings on their own. But for you to say that I’m lying I reject entirely. That is not true and you are wrong.”
Meanwhile, Urbana independent news company, CheckCU, has received confirmation from the Illinois Attorney General that there is no clause in the OMA that prohibits a public body holding in-person meetings from providing a remote component for its meetings, and it is up to the public body’s discretion whether to not to allow for remote public input.
Mayor Marlin and City Council members have been made aware of this since April 8th, 2022 but have yet to have an honest, open discussion about improving accessibility by allowing remote options for residents to participate in public comment.
Video below shows Mayor Marlin’s comments during the July 6th, 2021, April 11, 2022, and April 18, 2022 City Council meetings.