City Council accepts public comment and continues to delay implementation
Cleveland City Council agreed in principle on Monday that a public comment period should be allowed at evening council meetings. Although council did not vote to introduce an ordinance to this effect, council chairman Kevin Kelley said council staff will now begin drafting a bylaw change in hopes that council will hold a vote in ” a reasonable period of time “.
Given the delays and kicks on the popular question so far, it is impossible to guess what “reasonable” may mean here. And given the tenor of Monday’s conversation, it seems likely that the resulting rule change will differ significantly from the legislation proposed by the city-wide activist coalition Clevelanders for Public Comment, written by resident Jessica Trivisonno.
There has been no discussion, in fact, about whether or not to codify public commentary as law in the city charter, which would require an ordinance (and that a majority of council members have already agreed to co-sponsor and have repeatedly requested to be introduced.) Kelley never recognized this possibility. He simply weighed the council’s support for public comment in the context of a rule change. City Councilor Charles Slife had to intervene at some point to clarify what was going on, and said he would personally support the ordinances route precisely because the council’s oral tradition with respect to its rules of governance tends to be unreliable. The Council can also, and frequently does, suspend its rules, meaning public comments could be removed whenever Kelley or the next Council Chairman feels like it.
Monday’s meeting was fraught with tension just below the surface, despite the public comments being ostensibly supported by everyone. It started, appropriately enough, with public comments from Jessica Trivisonno and Nora Kelley, representing Clevelanders for Public Comment. They recapitulated the draft ordinance, which provides for a regular 30-minute period of public speaking at Monday board meetings and committee hearings.
Nora Kelley pointed out that the CPC had done the heavy lifting – garnering public support, conducting best practice research, coordinating a City Club forum – while board leaders ignored group outreach for months. Trivisonno said that even if the board chooses to pursue a rule change instead of an order, the CPC’s priority is for the procedure to be clarified. She noted that her difficulty registering to speak on Monday illustrated the problems with the current system. She was a practicing lawyer who was used to speaking in front of public bodies, she said, but even she couldn’t be sure she had done it right. (She and Nora Kelley received Zoom links Monday morning and confirmation that they would be allowed to speak. Public comment is at the discretion of the committee chair, under the current system.)
A vocal minority of advisers continued to voice opposition to the proposal, although they claimed to be in favor of increased engagement in theory.
Councilor Anthony Brancatelli, for example, defended existing mechanisms for public comment during committee hearings and the value of interfacing with voters in casual neighborhood settings. Councilor Blaine Griffin gave a speech on fairness and said he was concerned that without an intentional ‘officiant’, public comment could be dominated by privileged residents who ‘descend’ on council to shed recurring lights on the problems of pets. Griffin has long been the council’s chief troll on the issue of public comment.
Not for nothing, but the legislation proposed by the CPC includes safeguards to promote fairness. Residents can only comment once per calendar month, for example. Registration forms should be available online and in print. It is designed to make the process simple and transparent for everyone, which is in stark contrast to the current system, where only the most engaged and persistent residents have a voice in committees.
The proposed rule change contains two important deviations from the CPC proposal. On the one hand, he only cares about Monday night meetings. The CPC also wishes to establish the same procedure during committee meetings. On the other hand, changing the rules of the council would only allow residents to talk about the items on the agenda of that meeting.
It’s a distinction that Councilor Jenny Spencer questioned. Isn’t there value, she wondered, in having a forum for residents to have their say on the topic they would like to talk about? Plus, Spencer said, most residents don’t know how to access council agendas.
Most of her colleagues disagreed and said keeping residents in the know would improve the “flow” of the meeting and ease the burden on council staff.
Speaking to Scene after the meeting, Nora Kelley said restricting public comments to agenda items only threatened to change the “Public comments by name only” rule.
“This does not allow residents to raise important and thorny issues facing the city,” she said. “Lead is the perfect example. If residents had been able to attend meetings and comment on this for years, think how long there would have been legislation.”
The point is that lead poisoning was do not on the board’s agenda. It is only through citizen engagement and persistent public pressure that residents can put these thorny issues and philosophical questions on council’s radar.
Kelley said Kevin Kelley had succeeded in turning the issue from a simple policy change that virtually everyone supports into “an obscure procedural debate. [about an ordinance versus a rule change]“She said the CPC’s goal was to ensure that whatever route the board takes, a public comment period is instituted on both name and substance.
Sign up for Scene’s weekly Newsletters to get the latest Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat straight to your inbox.