What follows is the text of a "guest sermon" titled "Transforming Yourself and Your Community: Living and Acting Your Values in the Public Sphere," given by Maryam Judar at the Hinsdale Unitarian Church on Sunday September 29, 2013.
Imagine that you plan on going to a meeting held by a government body, say your municipality. And you get there only to find that the seating for the public has been removed, which appears to be a blatant attempt to discourage your attendance. Or how about you plan on speaking during public comment at a government meeting; but before allowing public comment the officials arranged the meeting agenda so that first they meet in closed session, making you and the others wait for three hours in a hallway without chairs, before they will hear you speak? Or imagine that some public problem or issue in your community has gotten you fired up, or riled up, and you use the process available to you to influence the outcome, which is favorable to you and your neighbors, but then the Illinois legislature passes a bill to change the process to diminish that pathway to participation you so relied upon in achieving your goal, so that no one else may use it to achieve a goal favorable to them and the public at large. You don't have to imagine these scenarios, because these are real Illinois scenarios, emblematic of the barriers to public participation in the government decision making process throughout our fair state.
For those not familiar with the Citizen Advocacy Center, please allow me to set the stage. Citizen Advocacy Center, or CAC for short, or the Center, as we are prone to call it, is a non-profit organization, a non-partisan and grassroots organization, and a legal organization. We employ a model of community lawyering, and all our services are free. We do not accept government or corporate funding in order to provide unbiased advice, analysis, and commentary on public issues. We are funded only by contributions by individuals and from grants by private foundations.
We approach the field of democracy and political participation holistically. That means that the clients who come to us for our community lawyering services educate us about the problems they face in the civic political arena. They directly or indirectly inform what solutions to diminished democracy the Citizen Advocacy Center should pursue and support in our mission, which is to build democracy in the 21st century. We do so through direct client community lawyering services, civic education programs for all ages, monitoring public bodies for openness and accountability, public policy advocacy, and litigation as a last resort.
I had the privilege of going to Egypt during January 2013 on the second anniversary of the onset of the revolution there. The U.S. Department of State sponsored a cultural exchange of professionals: so, organizations in the Chicagoland area such as Citizen Advocacy Center, integrated Egyptian democracy workers and promoters of democracy into our organization's daily work life; and in turn I visited with governmental agencies, non-profits, and religious institutions when in Egypt. I met dozens of professionals working in the field of human rights, whether on behalf of children, mothers, people with disabilities, the incarcerated, or others. Some were journalists, some lawyers, others politicians, and all pursued a model of democracy in their nation.
I was humbled by the Egyptians I met. They have played different roles in bringing about social and political change there. Some led chants in Tahrir Square in January 2011, demanding an accountable government. Others stood up for women who were pregnant out of wedlock, and under the threat of death, they stood up. They and others pursued their passions in the public sphere under fears that are truly difficult for me to fully appreciate because I've lived in the United States nearly all my life, and here in the United States, we live under the protection of our U.S. Constitution.
A constitution that many of us are strangers to, a constitution I'm afraid we take for granted. Which brings me to the theme of this presentation: transforming yourself and your community through your participation in the government policy decision-making process, and the central role this participation plays in the demand of accountability from our elected officials.
How does the constitution bear on our role in the public sphere? Many view the constitution as the framework for our government and elected officials. They forget that it implicitly provides for our civic role as well, especially in the First Amendment, which is arguably the backbone of the document. The First Amendment protects us from governments interfering with our thoughts, or interfering with our words; so that we may believe what we like, freely; and speak out on political matters, freely. It prevents government interference into our actions when we petition that very government to achieve policy goals important to us. It prevents interference from the government when we wish to get together with like-minded people, for lots of different reasons, but importantly including the reasons to organize and communicate in the political arena.
These are precious freedoms, the kind that millions of people in the world, in Egypt and Morocco and elsewhere fight for, fought for, and some died for. I practice these freedoms as a community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center, and I educate others in using these freedoms to pursue their passions in the public sphere.
In contrast to Egypt, living in the United States, we do not expect threats of death when we practice our
First Amendment freedoms. Yet, we do have our share of troubles. Many might begin to contemplate our federal government when thinking about problematic government behavior, but I am speaking about barriers to a more robust democracy in our own backyards, in our neighbors' backyards, our families' and relatives' backyards, our friends' backyards. Throughout our backyards lies a layer cake of political bodies, counties, townships, municipalities, school districts, park districts, forest preserves, and lots others totaling nearly 7,000 government units in Illinois. For reference, that's the most of any other state in the union. And, that's the potential for a lot of government interference into our First Amendment freedoms, as well as government interference into our statutory rights, such as the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and the Illinois Open Meetings Act. And when government interference occurs somewhere in this layer cake of government bodies, the effect is much more tangible, palpable, heck, it might be unbreathable.
What do I mean by unbreathable? A couple of years ago, nearby, an international multi-billion dollar company wanted to move its headquarters down the road from Warrenville to Lisle. The company intended to build a pollution making engine testing facility in the midst of residential communities. People spoke out against the proposal for obvious environmental and health reasons. They used the means available to them through our legal infrastructure for public participation. Others told those who were speaking out that they were wasting their time, that they would never achieve their goal because they were up against an international, multi-million dollar company. They were stymied every step of the way and were even publicly described by an elected official as being “misinformed and paranoid.” Well, if the group was misinformed, it was because of the difficulty it encountered in gathering information. Not-for-private economic development corporations, which perform traditional government functions, are not covered by our Illinois FOIA laws, and hence even so-called cooperation from such entities doesn’t mean anything if they are not accountable to the Illinois Attorney General’s office through the mechanisms of FOIA. We can remedy this through legislative amendments to the law.
Former Executive Director of the CAC Terry Pastika wrote a letter to the editor in 2011 entitled “How to quash citizen involvement,” in which she describes the roller coaster ride the public took in the reception they got from local elected officials, and that ultimately the State of Illinois stepped in and took the public’s concerns seriously. The group continues to monitor the company’s activities and dealings with government bodies to ensure that promises made are kept.
That same letter to the editor sets forth a tongue-in-cheek three step process in how to quash citizen engagement. The first step to weaken democracy, according to the letter, is through removing civic education from the schools, so that the public has little skill, knowledge, and confidence to participate in the democratic process. These civic tools help people keep their governments and elected officials accountable. Illinois has weak government and civic learning standards. Illinois can’t afford to have such weak standards.
The good news is that former attorney general Jim Ryan was appalled by the low level of knowledge of government that his students at Benedictine University demonstrated. Through his work, as well as the work of the Center and interested legislators, Illinois now has convened a Task Force on Civic Education that will hear testimony at public hearing across the state so as to comprehensively recommend best practices and legislative changes in Illinois to improve our civic education standards, such that our youth will get hands-on training on how to solve public problems in their own communities.
I’d like to use an experience the Center recently had to illustrate the direness of the problem of having poor civic education standards. CAC sponsors a speaker for availability at local high schools to speak to students on the anniversary of the signing of our Constitution, each year. In September 2012, CAC brought a young person who fought for one of the precious freedoms in the First Amendment at the level of her school district. Specifically, she wanted her school to abide by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, as interpreted for 50 years by our United States Supreme Court. Her story illustrated how pursuing a First Amendment freedom is not without peril; and in fact, she suffered death threats and rape threats, not by her government, but by her peers and the public.
During her visit, the public response evidenced an alarming theme—an emphasis that some put on the young women’s belief system (she happened to be atheist), and not on the constitutional principle that her story portrayed and the civic lessons that can be garnered from it. I believe this is a failing of our school system to not educate our youth from a young age about their Constitution and its important principles that help keep a society intact and hopefully living in peace. The controversy evidenced by Elmhurst’s reaction to that young person’s visit should give us pause to remember that the Establishment Clause is a relatively simple Constitutional principle that was forged based on the experiences of those who penned it, who saw with their own eyes people practicing minority religions who were jailed for their beliefs by their government.
By the way, we always emphasize to the students that they may not agree with the speaker, but there is probably something each young person is passionate about and might use every legal means available to fight for, and to think about the risks they are willing to take for it, risks that reveal themselves through the living examples in the Constitution Week series.
The Constitution doesn’t guarantee that our involvement in the government policy decision making process is an easy road. It doesn’t guarantee that demanding accountability from the governments that are meant to serve the public will result in immediate responses. But it gives us our freedoms for improving our communities for the benefit of all, and the state legislature has given us a helping hand through our sunshine laws that support public participation. And the Citizen Advocacy Center is available to lend a hand! So when you go to a meeting and you find the seating for the public has been removed, when you are faced with a three hour wait in a hallway before your elected officials will hear you speak, when cynical legislation is passed to bar your participation in the political process, you will have the knowledge and skills to stand up to prevent government abuse of its power for the benefit of the public interest.
CAC Constitution Week Forum Monday September 16th at 6:30 pm at the Center
To commemorate Constitution Day, Celebrate First Amendment Freedoms, and Inspire Civic Participation!
Constitution Day commemorates the formation and signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. Celebrating Constitution Day provides an opportunity for the public to remember the importance of a document held in esteem worldwide for empowering “We the People” with the rights and responsibilities to engage in the democratic process. The First Amendment Freedoms, (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition our government, freedom to assemble, and freedom of religion) are essential components that ensure a healthy democracy and the capacity to hold government accountable.
“Constitution Week recognizes the importance of our founding document by introducing students and adults to constitutional issues through dynamic speakers with first-hand knowledge of what it means to fight for
freedom. Ms. Hayes’ experiences illustrate the tensions in our democracy while sharing a remarkable journey in
First Amendment advocacy, ” said Maryam Judar, community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center.
In collaboration with area high schools, and made possible with support from the McCormick Foundation, the focus of this year’s Constitution Week is the constitutional right to peaceful assembly in protesting government activity. As with previous Constitution Week speakers, the Citizen Advocacy Center is highlighting the importance of a robust legal infrastructure for public participation and is not endorsing any particular position on the specific issues Ms. Hayes is passionate about.
Ms. Hayes is a youth organizer who has participated in several community organizing initiatives. These include planning of the Chicago NATO protest in the Spring of 2012; Chicago Occupy Protests; and opposition to the City of Chicago’s ordinance curtailing First Amendment rights, dubbed by the press as the “Sit Down and Shut Up Ordinance.” She is also a Non Violent Direct Action (NVDA) trainer. Her advocacy has focused on combating austerity measures by government as well as advocating for social justice issues. She is presently involved in the battle for public education in Chicago and in the creation of a city wide series of NVDA trainings for student activists.
While in the western suburbs, Ms. Hayes will speak to hundreds of high school students, including those at York High School in Elmhurst and Glenbard South in Glen Ellyn, about utilizing her First Amendment freedoms to peaceably assemble and petition the government. Students will hear her first-hand accounts and have the opportunity to ask questions. Community lawyer Maryam Judar will accompany Ms. Hayes to provide the constitutional context for her participation in the government decision making process.
The Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan community based legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st Century by increasing the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. The Citizen Advocacy Center is funded entirely through contributions from individuals and foundations. We do not accept corporate or government funding. This allows us to maintain our independence and provide unbiased advice, analysis, and commentary.
New rule to attend CPS meetings draws complaints
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah Tribune reporter 8:11 p.m. CDT, August 28, 2013
A new requirement that participants sign up online to attend the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting drew complaints Wednesday and claims the district is violating the Open Meetings Act.
Ronald Jackson, a regular at CPS board meetings, said he had signed up before the meeting but was turned away by security guards who couldn’t find his name on a list. Jackson asked to see the district’s legal department. Eventually, he was allowed into the meeting.
Jackson said many others who tried to attend the meeting Wednesday where CPS was voting on its budget for fiscal year 2014 ended up leaving after being denied entry.
“I shouldn’t have to be harassed,” Jackson said. “District policy doesn’t override state and federal laws.”
Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, said government agencies can ask for people to sign up to speak at public meetings, or even require people to sign up to get a count on attendance. But they cannot deny someone entry into a public meeting because they have not signed up beforehand.
“The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is that deliberations take place in public, and the public may attend the meeting as an observer, Judar said. “It would be in contravention of the Open Meetings Act to limit that availability to a select few. They shouldn’t be turning people away for lack of signing up.”
The district’s guidelines stated people who wanted to speak or even observe board meetings “must register in advance of the day of the meeting.”
CPS officials said later Wednesday they will be amending their guidelines to make it clear that the public is not required to sign up in advance in order to attend the board meeting.
“Our goal is to ensure the safety and accommodate the needs of all attending our monthly Board of Education meetings,” said CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll. “That is why we are requesting, but not requiring, that members of the public planning to attend these meetings to register in advance so we can best prepare to accommodate all visitors on those days. Any member of the public who wishes to attend the Board meeting can do so without registering in advance given that there is adequate space in Board chambers and its overflow room."
Read the article at the chicagotribune.com here
On Tuesday August 27th, Maryam Judar gave public comment regarding the revision of the ethics law at both the DuPage County Finance Committee Meeting and the full County Board meeting. The revision passed. Commissioner Liz Chaplin was the single vote against the change. The article appearing in the Daily Herald on August 28th is below:
DuPage County Board loosens cap on campaign contributions
By Robert Sanchez
The DuPage County Board has repealed its self-imposed cap on campaign contributions after the state's attorney's office told members the restrictions can't be enforced.
Instead, DuPage now will mirror state law when it comes to limiting the amount of campaign money county board members and the board chairman can accept from donors doing or seeking county government work. The state cap is less restrictive than the previous limit in DuPage's ethics law.
Advertisement "I like the lower limits personally," county board member Robert Larsen said. "But our state's attorney's office — our lawyers — are telling us it is unenforceable."
Before DuPage's ethics law was revised on Tuesday night, it capped campaign donations from companies and consulting firms, as well as officers and owners of those entities, to $1,000 a year. That limit also applied to any individual appointed or applying for appointment to serve on a board, commission, authority, task force or advisory committee.
Now those same entities and individuals can donate up to $5,300 to county board members and the board chairman during each election cycle. An election cycle can be two or four years.
Government watchdog groups urged the county board to keep the local limit, which DuPage adopted in 2010.
"This revision of the ethics ordinance goes in the wrong direction," said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.
But First Assistant State's Attorney Nancy Wolfe advised county board members that they must follow state law when it comes to campaign contribution restrictions because DuPage isn't home rule.
"The state has set the limits (and) has not given a non-home rule entity authority to enact anything more restrictive or less restrictive," Wolfe said.
The reason DuPage was able to set its cap in 2010 was because the state-imposed limits hadn't yet taken effect. Now that the state law is in place, Wolfe said, "we are bound to follow that."
"A non-home rule county doesn't have authority to act unless it's specifically given," Wolfe said. "No authority (to limit campaign contributions) has been given to us by the state legislature or the Illinois Constitution or the common law."
Judar said she disagrees with that legal opinion. "I don't think it is clear that DuPage County as a non-home rule entity cannot exercise more restrictive ethics," she said.
In addition, officials with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform have said DuPage could, through its procurement system, require vendors to promise not to give more than a set amount to candidates for offices that might have a role in the issuance of their contracts.
Attempts to delay Tuesday night's vote on the ethics law revisions failed. Some board members sought the delay to give watchdog groups a chance to respond to the opinion from the state's attorney's office.
"We're forcing this through," said Elizabeth Chaplin, the only county board member to vote against the revisions. "We're wasting our time on increasing political campaign donations."
The League of Women Voters of the LaGrange Area is honoring CAC with a Persons of Impact Award. This award recognizes CAC for encouraging active citizen participation and for working diligently to influence
public policy through education and advocacy to protect the rights of all citizens.
I am proud to accept this award on behalf of the Citizen Advocacy Center. This award belongs to all the people who make up the community we call Citizen Advocacy Center: those who don the hat of active participant or government monitor and seek our assistance, and those who give generously - whether of time,talent, or financial support. Complete details about the event and registration link are below.
About the 2013 Persons of Impact Award
The League of Women Voters of the LaGrange Area is proud to honor two individuals and one non-profit organization who keep alive the legacy of the LWV for Power, Influence and Change in our communities.
Each award recipient has encouraged active citizen participation in representative government and continues to work diligently to influence public policy through education and advocacy to protect the rights of all citizens.
Date: Thursday Sept 12th
Time: 5:30pm - 8:00 pm
Mayslake Peabody Estate
1717 W. 31st St.
Oak Brook, IL 60532
Individual Reservations by August 30th:
$40 per person
State office rules it can't review D-46 minutes
Statement by Citizen Advocacy Center to the
Senate State Government and Veterans
Subcommittee on Economic Development
Hearing on Senate Bill 2
Delivered by Maryam Judar, Community Lawyer, April 4, 2013
CAC In The News
Citizen Advocacy Center
Freedom Of Information FOIA
Freedom Of Information - FOIA
Letter To The Editor
Letter To The Editor
Open Meetings Act
Transparency & Accountability
Voting / Election
Zoning & Land Use