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For years, advocacy groups have requested public comment at Cleveland City Council meetings and a more straight-forward process for commenting at Council committee meetings. Members of City Council say they have pressed the issue with council leadership without gaining any traction. But this year could be different thanks to a broad based coalition of advocacy organizations, labor unions, and a resident coalition called Clevelanders for Public Comment. City Council seems closer to adopting public comment than ever before, but we need to keep paying attention and pushing them to adopt a public comment policy that is inclusive, transparent, and fair.
The ordinance proposed by Clevelanders for Public Comment was vetted by several attorneys, successfully tested during a City Club virtual public comment forum, and received support from residents, advocacy groups, labor unions, editorial boards, statewide elected officials, and a majority of City Council members. Frustratingly, this work and widespread consensus has been entirely ignored by Council President Kevin Kelley, who has blocked efforts to introduce the policy proposed by Clevelanders for Public Comment and is instead championing a watered-down version of public comment that would make little progress toward making Cleveland City Council more democratic. Clevelanders deserve better.
Clevelanders for Public Comment took its cues from other resident-led coalitions that proposed legislation to push Council to take action on long-deferred, important issues, such as Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH)’s lead-safe housing ordinance and the elimination of Cleveland’s requirement that block parties hire off-duty police. We drafted a proposed ordinance that could establish public comment at Council meetings and at Committee meetings and hearings.
Clevelanders for Public Comment circulated the draft ordinance to every member of council. Nine council members agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, and nearly all council members said they generally support public comment.
Council President Kevin Kelley has never acknowledged that Clevelanders for Public Comment proposed a policy. Instead, after over three months of Clevelanders for Public Comment making consistent requests for meetings to discuss public comment, he sent a written response on April 9 saying, “I understand that you believe that there would be some additional benefit to having comments at the Monday night meetings. As to that concern, please be aware that I have referred the matter of public comment to our Research Policy Cluster.”
Council President Kevin Kelley is proposing to adopt the public comment policy as a council rule as opposed to an ordinance. Councilman Basheer Jones forwarded the Clevelanders for Public Comment’s draft ordinance to Council staff on March 11, saying “I would like to introduce this legislation. Please use the verbiage below.” Rachel Nigro Scalish, Special Counsel for City Council, responded, saying “How the Council conducts its business is not really the subject matter of the codified ordinances … I understand that the Council President will be asking the policy staff and the Rules Committee to review whether and how the Council Rules should be changed to allow public comment at Council meetings. Any and all changes to the Rules of Council are vetted through the Rules Committee and then adopted by majority vote of the Council.”
Public comment could be adopted as an ordinance, but Council President Kelley prefers to change the policy using a rule. Of course, the only way to amend Council Rules is upon a report by the Rules Committee, a committee he chairs.
Clevelanders for Public Comment have provided a version of our public comment proposal as an amendment to council rules. Although adopting the change as a rule is not our preferred format (rules, unlike ordinances, can be suspended by a majority of council and are subject to change every four years), the content of the policy is more important than the form. Unfortunately, the content of the public comment policy proposed by council staff and Council President Kelley is deficient in several areas.
City Council’s policy staff presented research at a Special Joint Rules Committee and Operations Committee on Monday, May 10. Council staff’s research was limited to Council meetings only and staff did not specifically research public comment at committee meetings.
Their proposal for public comment limits participation in public comment. For example, Clevelanders for Public Comment’s proposal allows any member of the public to address council, while their proposal only allows residents and business owners to address Council. There are plenty of differences between the two proposals, but the two most critical limitations need to be changed if Cleveland is going to have a meaningful public comment policy:
Council’s Proposal Does Not Create a Process for Public Comment at Committee Meetings. Although comment may be permitted at committee meetings, the process for signing up is opaque and requires consent from the committee chair. The council rules currently provide that “persons desiring to be heard by any committee of council on any matter then under consideration may, by consent of such committee, be given an opportunity to be heard.” The key there is commenting at a committee requires the consent of the chair.
Even if a person can figure out the process for getting in touch with the chair of the relevant committee, their request to comment could be denied. And requests to comment have been denied. Long-time Buckeye resident Rob Korecky emailed Councilman Brancatelli, the Chair of Council’s Development, Planning and Sustainability (DPS) Committee on February 9 requesting two minutes to comment about the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) budget at the next DPS meeting.
Councilman Brancatelli denied that request on February 10, saying “If there is a particular issue you would like to raise regarding this year’s budget please do so in writing to my office.” Brancatelli went on to explain that there have been public meetings about CDBG throughout the years, but he wasn’t sure how those meetings would be handled this year due to COVID. He wrote, “Once I find out how the Mayor’s Administration is handling the public comment period I will post that online.” Budget approval is a function of City Council, but Brancatelli tried to outsource public feedback to the mayor’s administration, denying a resident the opportunity to address Council members directly.
I’m not sure what to call the process currently employed for committee meetings, but it’s not public comment. Formalizing a process is crucially important to ensuring public comment is permitted in reality, and not just theoretically, at committee meetings.
Council’s Proposal Limits Public Comment to Agenda Items. Council is currently proposing to limit public comment to items on the council agenda. Council President Kelley said on May 10 that he prefers to limit comments to items on the agenda to maintain the “flow” of council meetings. But limiting public comment to agenda items does nothing to reduce barriers for individuals who want to advocate for policy changes not currently under consideration by council or people who need assistance on quality of life concerns.
While some Council members are open to meetings with residents, others are not. And besides, citywide coalition building requires support from more than one sympathetic council person. People with a stake in Cleveland should have an outlet to share their ideas and their concerns, even if those concerns are not a part of council’s agenda.
Meaningful reform is important and urgent. We will keep pushing city council to adopt a comprehensive public comment process.
We encourage city residents to contact your councilperson (use https://clevelandcitycouncil.org/find-my-ward if you’re not sure who represents your ward) and encourage them to advocate for (1) making public comment available for any subject that concerns the legislative, administrative, or public affairs of the City and, (2) a formal public comment process for all Council Committee meetings and hearings. Please also endorse the Clevelanders for Public Comment ordinance. By endorsing our efforts, you will receive regular email updates from Clevelanders for Public Comment.
Jessica Trivisonno is a Cleveland resident of Ward 3. She is an attorney with experience in municipal law. You can connect with her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @jesstrivisonno