UPDATE: Cleveland City Council voted to approve allowing public comment at its meeting on Wed. Aug. 18th. An amendment by member Jenny Spencer to require council approval for the rules created by the Clerk of Court was accepted.
Cleveland City Council is set to vote Wednesday, August 18th on a rules change allowing the Clerk of Council to establish rules and procedures for public comment at its meetings. The vote follows months of public debate and wrangling about the need for public comment, intensified by pressure from advocacy groups amidst the elections. All 17 council seats are up for grabs this fall, and council president Kevin Kelley is running for mayor.
A press release issued by Cleveland City Council last week confirms that council members will vote on a rules change allowing public comment starting in September. The Clerk of Council will set the rules for public comment. Draft procedures allow anyone who registers to comment at council meetings, limits comments to three minutes, and permits speaking on any topic. Speaking slots will be allotted by order of registration, and the first 10 registrations will get the opportunity to speak for up to three minutes.
The proposal does not address public comment at committee meetings, where residents are technically allowed to speak but it is at the chairperson’s discretion and there is no clear signup process.
“I’m pleased that as Council President, I’ve brought public comment to the meetings after 90 years and for the first time under the Mayor-Council form of government, so 207 years since the city was incorporated,” Kelley said in a city council press release.
Kelley wasn’t always so sure public comment was a good idea. He ignored calls for change earlier this year before eventually asking council staff to research proposals for allowing public comment.
In May, council staff presented a rule change that would allow 30 minutes of public comment at council meetings. In July, Kelley told the council they would vote on the rule change at its August meeting. At the first mayoral debate held by Ideastream Public Media and the City Club, Kelley pounced on the issue as if it was his idea.
“The residents’ voices have to be heard. The council president is somebody that I admire and respect,” fellow councilman Basheer Jones said during the debate, “but he has been the biggest obstacle in regards to public comment and hearing from the residents.”
“I appreciate that you admire me, you’re just kind of wrong on your facts,” Kelley replied, going on to announce his support for public comment and the upcoming vote. Later in the debate, he responded to heated attacks by candidate Dennis Kucinich, “I actually did it. I got it done.”
Yet organizers with CLE for Public Comment, who plan to attend and speak at tomorrow’s meeting, are concerned that Kelley and other council members ignored much of their research and recommendations and have not created a clear process for residents to follow.
“Public comment is too important to assign to the unelected Clerk of Council,” said Ward 4 Michelle B. Jackson in a press release. “Councilmembers need to muster enough bravery to make simple decisions about public comment and be held accountable should the policy fall short of what Clevelanders demand.”
Jessica Trivissonno, the attorney and Ward 3 resident who drafted the Clevelanders for Public Comment proposal, said in the release, “This proposed public comment rule change is an obvious ploy by Councilman Kevin Kelley to claim a win on his campaign trail. Adopting the public comment rule proposed by Kevin Kelley would allow Council Leadership to claim progress while preserving their ability to remain gatekeepers for civic engagement and blockade public input. That’s not a win for Clevelanders at all.”
CLE for Public Comment consists of residents from all 17 wards in Cleveland who signed onto a letter demanding public comment at council meetings earlier this year. Several members plan to attend and offer public comment on the proposed rules change at tomorrow’s meeting. Fittingly, Council President Kelley approved their ability to speak at tomorrow’s in person meeting, which will also be broadcast live on YouTube and TV20.
An earlier version of this story did not acknowledge that Councilman Kevin Kelley is chair person of the Committee of the Whole. We apologize for the error.
Watch City Council debate public comment at 9 am on Wed., Aug. 18th live on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/user/clevelandcitycouncil
Past stories on public comment:
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.