Ever try building democracy in the good ole USA? It’s not for the fainthearted, as our history points out over the past two centuries. Try asking Theresa Amato, who, for four years as director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, Illinois. nestled in the Chicago suburbs, has been grappling with local tyrannies and autocracies that forget where they are located.
Mind you, community lawyer, Amato, a New York University law school honors graduate, is not trying to clean up some seamy waterfront, some corrupt company or union. This is scrubbed down, pretty lawns, white picket fence mid-western suburbia with local officials who are supposed to be close to the people unlike those remote feds in Washington, D.C.
In an address she delivered earlier this month to an assemblage of attorneys in Chicago, Amato shared some of her experiences and observations:
1. At Maine Township, if you speak 30 seconds over the unpublished five minute rule during public comment time, the Township supervisor may call the police to have you handcuffed. One night, she saw three Park Ridge squad cars come to arrest a citizen who peacefully offered public comment — something you have to sign up for a week in advance of the meeting before the agenda is actually published.
2. Over at Crest Hill, at their municipal meeting, if you utter a falsehood, you could be fined $750. The local officials decide whether what you say is false.
3. At District 205, the School Board is thinking about prohibiting all negative comments about the staff at Board meetings. Negative comments would have to be submitted in writing, not orally delivered.
4. If you want to say something political on public access cable in Wheaton, you’re violating a written town policy banning political speech.
5. Suppose you want a proposed ordinance from the Village of Harwood Heights. Too bad. You can’t get it until it is passed, even if it is on the agenda and subject to public discussion.
6. At Naperville Township, allowing citizens to make copies of public documents has become a profit center. Having paid for them already as a taxpayer, you are again charged $2.00 a page. (A local copying store charges 6 cents per page.)
Stacking local Boards, in violation of law, blocking citizens from their freedom of information rights to public information, refusing to keep town records for public scrutiny, knowingly obstructing citizen input and participation, phony audits, corrupt procurement practices — all in a day’s work at the local government’s officialdom.
Community lawyer Amato charges that many of these outrages are not only illegal under Illinois law, but they violate the U.S. Constitution. But she also knows that systemically violating peoples’ constitutional rights, as determined by a court, results in no personal sanctions. But don’t get caught overstaying your parking meter or some other modest violation of a town ordinance that officials have chosen to enforce.
There are numerous other examples in Amato’s speech, including ones that obstruct and harass the right to petition, the right to vote and the right to register to vote. (Copies of her address can be obtained by sending a stamped, self-addressed large envelope to Citizen Advocacy Center, P. 0. Box 420, Elmhurst, Illinois, 60126).
But she makes a larger point. Remember all the stories and editorials about citizen apathy, about too many people not voting, not participating, just giving up to City Hall or powerful business interests. Well, listen to what Amato has to say:
“It is very hard to be a citizen. From everything I have seen in the last four years, you need a full-fledged law degree just to keep the playing field even. And even then, the deck is stacked against your participation at almost every level. Every day, citizens who try to participate in local affairs are routinely shut out, criticized, ridiculed, threatened with lawsuits, ostracized, and painted as so very radical for the most minor offense, such as daring to ask a question. . .
“From our experience at the Citizen Advocacy Center, the so-called civic apathy is nothing more than a withdrawal response to having been repeatedly shut out, and repeatedly suffering the great imbalance in access to power and control.”
One of our groups funded the Citizen Advocacy Center from the beginning to provide a model for replication at other local townships. Given all the conferences and publications calling for the strengthening of “the civil society,” the Center is bringing all this rhetoric down to earth and showing what it is really like on the front lines.
Some other foundations are beginning to realize that high sounding and abstract exhortations are no substitute for local experience showing that the symbols of democratic government have replaced the substance of democracy. It is high time to turn the situation around for the sake of, what Daniel Webster called, the great work of humans on earth — Justice.