When it comes to public comment at city council meetings, Clevelanders are getting the silent treatment.
Ohio cities like Columbus, Akron and Youngstown allow residents to provide live public comment at their city council meetings. Closer to home, Cuyahoga County Council also allows public comment at its meetings. But at gatherings of Cleveland City Council, members of the public are not allowed to address the council.
In fact, except for the period from 1924-1932, when the city was under a city manager form of government without an elected mayor, Cleveland City Council has never given residents an opportunity to speak, according to city archivist Chuck Mocsiran.
Now some activists are trying to change that in the run-up to the 2021 elections, hoping to foster public participation in decision making at a time when the mayoral race, and all 17 council seats, are up for grabs.
Nora Kelley, an attorney, West Park resident and activist with Citizens for Public Comment, argues the lack of ability to speak at council meetings contributes to the distance between city government and voters that has resulted in dismal turnout in recent elections.
Only 23% of city residents voted in the 2017 mayoral election. Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election was 53%, well below the 67% rate nationwide.
“People feel disenfranchised, in a way,” said Kelley, who also started Clevelanders for City Council Reform, a larger group of which Citizens for Public Comment is an offshoot. “There’s a strong connection between how the city is governed and overall community engagement.”
Public comment can help open up communication between residents and their local government, advocates say. “By hearing from members of the public, council members can learn about matters that are important to the public and make better informed decisions,” said Jessica Trivissono, an attorney and Ohio City resident who drafted a model ordinance.
Council leaders, on the other hand, argue that residents already have an opportunity to provide input to elected officials by attending ward meetings or requesting a speaking slot at committee meetings. These leaders say they’re open to creating avenues that facilitate public comment, but they’re worried that it may be monopolized by a minority of individuals and not used for constructive feedback.
“Our job as council people is to talk to multiple people daily,” said Ward 6 council member Blaine Griffin. “I’m all for public participation, but as for giving everybody two minutes at a council meeting, I believe there are more effective ways to accomplish transparency.”
Ward 13 council member and city council president Kevin Kelley, who is currently undertaking a listening tour of each ward as he prepares a possible run for mayor, was more direct in regard to his opinions on public comment.
“The notion that voter turnout is related to lack of public comment at city council meetings misses the point entirely,” he said. “It scapegoats a bigger problem, which is that the city’s population has become more transient since the last recession. What drives turnout is generally campaigns, and in the 2020 election, Biden and the Democrats didn’t prioritize Ohio until late in the game.”
Yet Nora Kelley said the city council’s lack of respect for public comment is evidenced in the fact that as of Friday, March 19th, she still hadn’t received a response from council president Kelley to a letter signed by 40 residents from all 17 Cleveland wards and sent in January from Clevelanders for Council Reform. “The level of contemptuousness is really shocking,” she said.
“The progress of the city is really undermined without public comment,” added Kelley. “When we’re trying to create a more prosperous city, part of it is engaging people.”
A modest proposal
Citizens for Public Comment say they’ve received favorable responses from eight council members, though not all have endorsed the ordinance: Joe Jones, Basheer Jones, Brian Kazy, Kerry McCormack, Jasmin Santana, Jenny Spencer, Mike Polensek and Charles Slife. Council members Spencer and McCormack stated they would co-sponsor the legislation.
The proposed ordinance drafted by Trivisonno states, “At the start of each regular council meeting, Council shall provide a public comment period for members of the public to address Council on any agenda items and subjects that concern the legislative, administrative, or public affairs of the city. The public comment period shall end when every individual signed up to provide a public comment has provided their comment or after 30 minutes, whichever occurs first.”
The ordinance outlines separate rules for council and committee meetings. Proposed rules for council meetings are as follows:
A 30 minute comment period at the beginning of council meetings for the public to address the council.
Members of the public may comment on any agenda item and subjects that concern the legislative, administrative, or public affairs of the City.
Public must sign up ahead of time to address the council.
Each person has up to three minutes to address the council.
For committee meetings, the proposed ordinance states:
People can address the committee on any agenda item. At the end of the meeting, people can address the Committee on matters related to the Committee but not on the agenda.
People can address the Committee before or after the Committee discusses each agenda item, and again at the end for any matter relevant to the committee.
Public must sign up ahead of time to address the committee.
Each person has three minutes to address the committee, but that time can be adjusted by the Chair.
Although they haven’t signed on to the legislation, council president Kelley said he and other council leaders are committed to addressing the public comment issue. They’ve asked staff members to develop policy recommendations that can be presented to the city council’s operations committee. Currently, there is no timeline set for reviewing policy proposals.
Although public comment is technically allowed at committee meetings, it’s extremely rare. An explainer prepared by Documenters Cleveland points out that to provide public comment, citizens must contact the council member who chairs or leads the committee and ask to speak. The chairperson ultimately decides whether to invite someone to speak.
“The work of the Documenters community indicates an overall lack of public comment at City Council meetings,” the explainer, prepared by Doug Breehl-Pitorak and the Documenters team, states. “Between November 18, 2020 and March 12, 2020, Documenters attended 52 council meetings, including regular and committee gatherings. Rarely, if ever, has a member of the public not employed by the city — or an organization in or aiming to contract with the city — commented during those proceedings.”
Ward 12 council member Tony Brancatelli, chair of the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee, said comment is allowed at the Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, Landmarks, and design review committees. Additionally, citizens can get involved through their block clubs or through their local community development corporation. Council members hold meetings in their wards to get feedback. Finally, he welcomes comments at his committee.
“For my residents, coming down to city hall doesn’t make sense,” he said. “People can still attend council meetings, even if they don’t speak.”
Nora Kelley disagreed. “The process of public comment at committee meetings was opaque pre-COVID and worse during COVID,” she said. “Comment during committee meetings is a completely haphazard process that requires knowing that you’re supposed to e-mail the chairperson and ask to speak. I’ve never heard an open call for public comment at committee hearings — you have to already have the inside track to utilize that avenue.”
Ward 4 resident Michelle Jackson said block clubs and ward meetings should also not be a substitute for public comment, especially because not all city council members engage their constituents in the same way. Jackson said her council member, Ken Johnson, who is currently under indictment by the FBI, almost never held public meetings. “We need public comment to get our concerns on the record,” she said.
Although Griffin is adamant that any public comment proposal should prohibit rude or offensive speech towards public officials, he said he’s committed to looking at the issue and developing a proposal for public comment. “Nobody’s trying to stonewall the activists that would like to see this happen, people just want to see this done right,” he said.
Council president Kevin Kelley said he plans to respond to the letter from Clevelanders for Council Reform, but as of the deadline for this story, he had not done so yet.
A growing number of elected leaders and candidates, as well as advocacy organizations, have also endorsed public comment at city council meetings. They include Dale Miller, representative for County Council district 2; State Sen. Nickie Antonio (D – Lakewood); State Sen. Juanita Brent, (D – Cleveland); and State Sen. Sandra Williams (D – Cleveland).
Organizations that have endorsed the proposal include the ACLU of Ohio, Black Lives Matter Cleveland, Cleveland Advocates for Lead Safe Housing, Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus and many others. The League of Women Voters also sent a letter to City Council President Kelley in support of the effort.
A recent op ed in Cleveland.com by Alesha Washington and Marcia Egbert of the Gund Foundation and Dale Anglin of the Cleveland Foundation also called for public comment at city council meetings.
Nora Kelley stressed that it’s time for the city to embrace public comment, and pointed to the recent passage of a 60-year tax increment financing deal (TIF) for Flats East by city council without any public input as an example of how decisions that are made behind closed doors can sow the seeds of distrust.
“Cleveland is really an outlier in terms of not allowing public comment,” Nora Kelley said. “It shouldn’t be this hard to do something basic that nearly every other city does. It’s a no brainer.”
Maria McGinnis is a senior journalism major at Kent State University and an intern with The Land. Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer and editor and founder of The Land.
Want to learn more? Check out Documenter’s explainer on public comment at Cleveland City Council meetings.
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