Cook County ordinance would give residents more input, information
The Cook County Board of Commissioners is considering a measure to create an electronic "witness slip" system that would make the county – one of the largest in the country – a national frontrunner in public access and transparency.
According to the Better Government Association (BGA), County Commissioner Larry Suffredin introduced Ordinance 17-3293, which would begin the development of the online system to allow county residents to easily and remotely comment on pending legislation. The BGA, an advocate of transparency, strongly supports the measure, particularly for a unit of government the size of Cook County.
The measure was scheduled to be voted on at the June 7 board meeting, but didn't appear on the agenda.
In a report on the ordinance, BGA said the only county with a larger population is Los Angeles County, and that Cook County’s operating budget is larger than that of Delaware. In light of the size of its budget and how its actions affect 5 million residents, Cook County will greatly benefit from the additional transparency, the BGA and other groups have argued.
“It is vitally important that local government in Illinois continue to engage technology as democracy moves into an increasingly digital era,” Josh Sharp, vice president of government relations for the Illinois Press Association, said, according to the BGA. “Whereas taxpayers have previously written letters, or placed phone calls to their elected officials in order to voice their opinion about a particular measure, they will now have the ability to weigh in using online witness slipping. It’s a practice that works well in Springfield, and we welcome its swift approval in Cook County.”
As Sharp noted, a similar measure is in place for Illinois’ state government, making the state one of at least 10 to implement a remote testimony system. The system dates to 2011, when it was piloted before being fully implemented in 2012.
Using the online ILGA Dashboard, residents can locate bills that are scheduled for hearings and submit witness slips on the measures, as well as register to track legislation and hearings. Previously, if a resident wanted to weigh in through a witness slip, he would have had to physically show up in Springfield, a severe limitation due to the costs of travel and missed days at work. The system is also more convenient for many constituents than calling or sending a letter to their legislators.
“The electronic slipping system is vital to our democracy,” state Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) said. “To not have a system that allows people to weigh in on different policy being considered is to stand against the spirit of transparency. In every area of your life you can act electronically; this shouldn't be the one area you can't act on.”
The system has facilitated the submission of more than 600,000 witness slips and seen more than 23,000 Illinoisans register. Since 2013, it has averaged more than 100,000 slips each year.
While those are statewide figures, they have enormous implications for a similar system's efficacy in Cook County. According to the BGA, two-thirds of Cook County committee meetings had no public testimony or testimony from only one individual. These meetings determine significant outcomes for the county’s 5 million residents in areas like housing and criminal justice, making public participation critical.
"Electronically filing a witness slip allows individuals to voice their opinions on particular legislation if they are unable to attend the meetings," Cook County Clerk David Orr said. "We will be working closely with the secretary of the board to implement this common sense initiative to increase the public’s access to the county’s board proceedings."
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