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County board, speakers debate role of public comment during meetings

Ralph Peterson

Ralph Peterson

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Updated: February 17, 2014 8:33AM

Advocates for two teens who accused Waukegan police officers of abuse late last year brought the matter before the Lake County Board on Tuesday, Jan. 14, leading to a debate about whether or not public comment should strictly be related to business conducted by the board.

At one point, board member Diana O’Kelly of Mundelein objected when Ralph Peterson Jr., who spoke to the board last year about police brutality allegations in North Chicago, said he didn’t believe his complaints were respected.

“I really don’t see a difference in Mississippi courtrooms back in the ’50s and this (board),” Peterson said. “And that’s how I truly feel.”

When O’Kelly said she thought Peterson was using “inflammatory comments,” Peterson said, “No, that’s not inflammatory. I have a right to say what I feel.” Peterson also accused unnamed board members of having “a bunch of smiling smirks on their face” while he spoke.

The exchange was part of a lengthy dialogue that found more than a half-dozen speakers and board members commenting on the role the board plays in issues beyond their printed agenda. At several points, board attorney Daniel Jasica and board chairman Aaron Lawlor asked speakers to limit their remarks to “business related to the board.”

Regarding the allegations of police misconduct in Waukegan, Jasica said at one point that “it seems to me that this issue is not properly addressed to this board but would probably be better addressed” to agencies like the Lake County state’s attorney or the Illinois attorney general.

Brotha Chris Blanks of the Black Abolitionist Movement for the Mind — who joined Peterson in speaking to the board on Nov. 12 about alleged brutality in North Chicago — said “we feel that as Lake County citizens, where our tax dollars are being implemented, that there’s an obligation that you have as representatives of Lake County” to act as advocates.

Offering similar sentiments was Chicago attorney Kevin O’Connor, who filed a federal lawsuit last month accusing two Waukegan police detectives of physical abuse and civil rights violations in the questioning of two teens over a criminal damage incident.

“What I’ve asked and what the people have asked for is for the County Board to create some kind of advisory committee to do something about what’s going on,” O’Connor said, repeating past calls for the board to create an independent review panel to investigate misconduct allegations countywide.

“They’ve asked for your help. What I would reiterate to each of you is that you’re advocates. You’re in this position to help people and provide guidance and provide leadership,” added O’Connor, saying officials should respond “whether you can do it officially as a board thing or whether individually you can help get them to the right people.”

Lawlor, who pointed out that the board was providing the speakers with a list of agencies that could assist them, said later in the meeting that “there are people who have come to this podium today who I’ve called and asked to meet with to better understand their concerns, and they have declined meeting with me.”

Lawlor added, “I’m very sad about that, and I certainly do take these comments very, very seriously.”

O’Kelly said she is also “very concerned about these allegations,” but she added that “what we don’t want to open up is everyone who is upset with a court ruling to come to us” and air their complaints before the board.

Also addressing the issue were board members Bonnie Thompson Carter of Ingleside and Mary Ross Cunningham of Waukegan, who both said they were willing to listen and work with their constituents on matters that might go beyond board duties.

Board member Audrey Nixon of North Chicago said she was concerned that the public would draw the wrong impression “if we act as though we’re not concerned” about issues raised during public comment that starts each board meeting.

“I just feel that sometimes our citizens come to us because they just don’t feel that they have any alternative,” Nixon said. “I do feel we should take into consideration the comments as individuals from our citizens and be concerned about it.

“I know there are certain things that we as County Board members can’t do,” Nixon added, “but I do realize that when people come to us and ask for our help, I think we should be a little more serious about what we’re doing.”

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