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Dr. Padma Rao was about halfway through her speech during citizen comment at the June 25 City Council meeting when Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl ruled her out of order and turned off her microphone. The same thing happened with the next speaker, Dr. Rao’s mother, B. K. Rao. After Dr. Rao knew the microphone had been turned off, she left the lectern. Ms. Rao, however, continued to speak for a while, exchanging glares with Mayor Tisdahl.

Such scenes have been common at City Council meetings over the past several weeks, as the battle between what Dr. and Ms. Rao and their supporters see as freedom of speech and what many Council members and other residents term unacceptable discourse. Comments by Dr. Rao and Ms. Rao focus on their opposition to the City Council’s approval, more than a year ago, of a planned development for the former Kendall College property, near which they live. The developer proposes to remove 22 trees – “sentence them to death,” as Dr. Rao terms it.

Because the development is on private property and Council has already approved the zoning, the City says it has no jurisdiction over the fate of the trees. Nonetheless, Dr. Rao and Ms. Rao have complained for more than a year about the decision, at times escalating their criticism to personal attacks on City Council members. The two have hired a lawyer, Douglas Cannon of Skokie, who they say will guarantee their rights. They say he has approvaed their comments before each Council appearance.

The unpleasantness has taken its toll on many Council members, attendees at the meetings and stay-at-home watchers. One regular attendee said he “feels like taking a shower after listening to the spitefulness.” A few weeks ago the Rules Committee of the City Council voted to limit citizen comment to matters over which the Council has jurisdiction. The full Council approved that measure, and now citizen comment is composed, first, of speeches about items on the agenda, followed by speeches on non-agenda items over which the Council has some measure of control.

Before citizen comment began on June 25, Mayor Tisdahl refered to City Council rules on citizen comment and cited case law and the Illinois Open Meetings Act. She said the Kendall College matter is closed and no longer under Council jurisdiction, so no comments about it would be permitted. In his turn at the lectern, Mr. Cannon, attorney for Dr. Rao and Ms. Rao, cited case law he apparently believed supported his clients position. Nonetheless, with a click of a switch, Mayor Tisdahl silenced the Raos, leaving comments about trees to fall on the deaf ears of Council members and residents alike.