This story was republished with permission from The Cleveland Observer.
In June, Cleveland City Council passed a law that allowed it – and other city boards and committees – to meet virtually or in person with 12 hours notice for members of the public who might want to tune in or attend.
Council passed the ordinance the same day it was introduced, though some council members, including Jenny Spencer, voiced concerns about whether a half day was enough notice to tell residents about when a meeting or hearing was scheduled, how it would be conducted, and what items would be discussed.
“I wasn’t aware that we were able to provide that brief of a notice,” Spencer, who represents Ward 15, said that day.
After confirming with the city’s law department that the 12-hour notice was allowed under Ohio’s open meetings law, City Council President Kevin Kelley said that 12 hours would be the “bare-bones minimum” for letting the public know about meetings.
The opportunity to watch council at work has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, with meetings livestreamed on YouTube, where they also can be viewed at any time. Previously, meetings were broadcast only on Cleveland’s TV20, and recordings had to be requested.
City Council posts meeting notices on its website. Those notices come out, on average, less than four days – 3.7 days or 88 hours – before a meeting happens, according to data scraped from Legistar every 15 minutes from Feb. 22 until Aug. 11. The data is scraped and published by the Cleveland Bill Bot Twitter account which is run by Cleveland resident Angelo Trivisonno.
However, when you count only business days, and not weekends, council gave residents an average of 1.7 days of advance notice – or about 41 hours – before conducting a meeting.
All of that combined with council’s habit to regularly suspend the rules and speed up the pace of passage raises a question: Is this enough time for residents to engage?
What’s “reasonable” notice for a meeting?
Cleveland Documenters interviewed nearly 80 residents in 26 Cleveland neighborhoods to find out.
More than half said they would need to know a week in advance — or more — to be able to watch, attend, or make a public comment at a local government meeting such as a City Council meeting.
That is, if they know when the meetings are happening.
“I don’t have a reliable way to find this information,” 28-year-old Lee-Harvard resident Courtney Michelle Reese told Documenter Angie Pohlman.
Other residents said their most reliable sources for learning about important meetings were neighbors, friends, community organizations, or posts on social media.
The majority of open-meeting laws require government bodies to give the public “reasonable” notice by informing people of when and where a meeting will happen, how they can attend, and what will be discussed – though what is reasonable can be subjective.
A driving force behind public deliberation of proposed laws and expenditures is the idea that government officials will make better decisions when they’re being watched. The purpose is twofold. It can have an actual effect on the decisions that are made, but also enhance the perception of transparency, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.
”If you have [public] notice and you’re able to watch the process, you’re more likely to have a sense that the process was fair and legitimate,” LoMonte said. “If you’re shut out of the process, then you are more likely to be skeptical that there was favoritism or potentially even wrongdoing in the decision-making.”
Knowing about meetings is just one barrier that keeps residents from participating in local government, according to the interviews. Some residents expressed concern about getting downtown (where most meetings are held), paying for parking, and blocking out time during the work week for daytime meetings.
Work and family schedules were already hard to juggle, making it difficult to prioritize local government meetings, several residents said.
Meeting agendas are hard to find
One thing most residents agreed on is that more effort is needed to let residents know when meetings are happening and, for City Council, what legislation council members or other local government officials will be considering. Currently, the meeting dates and times are listed on the City Council website. Finding meeting agendas takes a little more effort.
“There are a lot of issues that should be discussed, as far as informing people about local government issues,” Katherine Bender, a 56-year-old resident from the Euclid-Green neighborhood, told her daughter, Documenter Kaitlin Bender-Thomas. “One way of discussing it would be [going] door-to-door or social media, […]trying to find ways to inform people of these particular meetings, giving them ample time to be there, and notifying them of the dates and times to be there,” Bender said.
Maria Estrella-Stallworth, a 41-year-old resident of St. Clair-Superior, told Documenter Kathryn Johnson that she’d like to see flyers distributed at corner stores, churches, barber shops, and salons — especially for residents who don’t have access to the internet.
Each City Council ward should have a fund that would pay organizers to regularly canvas and educate the public on how to engage with local government, Tramane Kedar Medley, 45, of Lee-Harvard, told Documenter Marvetta Rutherford.
Multiple modes of communication and more community outreach should be used, said Beth Piwkowski, 37, who lives in the Jefferson neighborhood. “I think mail is a way to reach people in your neighborhood — not everybody is extremely online,” she told Documenter Dan McLaughlin.
That should include outreach to non-English-speaking Clevelanders. “There’s easily at least five or six languages being spoken here [in my neighborhood] … I feel like there could be more efforts made to connect residents when English isn’t their first language,” she said.
Piwkowski said she got discouraged about attending public meetings, though, after signing a 2017 petition — rejected by City Council — aimed at preventing the city from financing renovations at what was then Quicken Loans Arena.
“There was no way to express anything at the council meeting about it, and it kind of felt like no matter what you wanted to do or no matter how much you wanted to be involved, it seemed kind of like people did whatever they wanted to do,” she said. “It’s not very motivating to feel like, if you want to have a say, you really can’t. And it seems to be set up that way sometimes, a little bit by design.”
Soon, council will allow residents to regularly speak at council meetings, thanks to the efforts of Clevelanders for Public Comment, a grassroots coalition that pushed for the changes.
Stephen Phillips, a 44-year-old resident of the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood, also thinks city officials should get out on foot in the neighborhoods to distribute information. But he feels that when people do speak up, they don’t always see results, and that is discouraging.
“One person would not be heard,” he told Documenter Mildred Seward. “You might be heard for the moment, but nothing will come from it.”
Some residents have lost faith that local officials will listen to their needs, even if they do show up.
“I don’t feel people in government positions have the people’s best interest at heart,” Dejenaba Lockett, a Kinsman resident, told Seward. “I feel like a more grass-roots movement is more needed for our community.”
Kelley, who is also running to be Cleveland’s next mayor, said during a July 27 forum at Edgewater Park that he is open to changing the time frame.
“I believe that it’s short, and it’s an ordinance that can be changed by council. And I’m certainly open to doing that,” he said.
Some of his colleagues might appreciate that as well.
On a recent Friday, around 4 p.m., Council announced that it would hold a meeting to discuss its priorities for spending the $511 million the city will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The meeting was scheduled for mid-afternoon on Monday.
Council didn’t vote on legislation, and no decisions were made at the meeting, but residents have a keen interest in how the city might spend the once-in-a-generation infusion meant to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a frequent topic for the seven candidates running for mayor. Groups have pushed for direct resident participation in the process. Cleveland mailed surveys to residents asking how they would prioritize spending, and some council members have held meetings in their wards.
About 50 people tuned in on YouTube to hear council members sort through ideas on how the money would best be spent.
Toward the end of the hour, Ward 14 Council Member Jasmin Santana asked: “Can we get notified of this meeting at least a week in advance?”
“Maybe not a full week…,” Kelley answered as some of his colleagues chuckled. “You can kind of count on Mondays generally, but we don’t get much full-week advance notice.”
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Doug Breehl-Pitorak is a civic reporter at Cleveland Documenters. Rachel Dissell is an independent reporter based in Cleveland.