Councilwoman Jenny Spencer with Clevelanders for Public Comment
Cleveland City Council formally voted last week to amend its rules and allow public comment at its Monday meetings. The two minor amendments are little more than tweaks to existing language, but a framework is now in place. Council expects to begin allowing comment at its Sept. 20th meeting.
The first change says that "in accordance with rules and procedures established by the Clerk of Council, any person may be heard during that portion of a regular meeting set aside for public comment.” The second change sets aside that portion, a regular slot in the meetings' order of business.
Activists from Clevelanders for Public Comment (CPC) were incensed when they saw a draft of the language, stunned that Council President Kevin Kelley had taken months to move on what amounted to little more than line edits.
But Council sent out a press release later with additional details on the procedures themselves. Though these procedures have not been finalized, they contain many of the provisions that CPC was agitating for from the beginning.
According to the release, Clerk Pat Britt's procedures will allow anyone to register to make a comment — not just Cleveland residents — and allow commenters to speak on any topic, not just those related to agenda items. Registration can be completed online, by paper form or by phone and must be submitted before 2 p.m. on the day of the council meeting. The first 10 registrants will be granted speaking time, a maximum of three minutes each.
All that is indeed aligned with what CPC had proposed, but organizers say the council vote is still a head scratcher.
"It's strange that they're not voting on these procedures," Jessica Trivisonno, who drafted the ordinance and rule change that Clevelanders for Public Comment proposed, told Scene. "They're voting on the Clerk being allowed to create procedures. It's not clear to me how those procedures are created, how they can change over time, and whether she even has to come before council if they are to change in the future." (Before the council vote, Ward 3 councilman Kerry McCormack introduced an amendment, drafted by CPC, that would give council oversight over the clerk’s rules.)
The second problem CPC identified is that the procedures don't apply to committee meetings. As before, those who wish to comment at committee meetings must make a request to the committee chair, and it's up to the committee chair whether or not to approve or deny the request.
"Tony Brancatelli and Kevin Kelley have said again and again that they already have public comment at committee meetings, and that's really where the work of council gets done," Trivisonno said. "Yet they've made no effort to make that process clearer through this legislation — it's not legislation — through whatever this is."
Nora Kelley, another one of CPC's organizers, echoed Trivisonno's complaints in comments to Scene.
"The first issue is that they're essentially punting to the unelected Clerk of Council," she said. "And there's no guarantee that these rules won't be modified. The second is the committee meetings. From a drafting standpoint, the rule is somewhat sloppy and may open the city up to exposure by making public comment at the discretion of the committee chair. There's no basis for them to accept or deny public comment. Like what criteria are they using?"
The fear, of course, is that committee chairs will simply deny the requests of comments or commenters they don't like.
"From our perspective, this should be a straightforward, easy process, and virtually every other city already has it in place," Nora Kelley said. "The fact that it's taking months to develop is concerning. They kept saying that this isn't like turning on a light switch, except for it is."
But the vote last week was nevertheless regarded as a significant step forward by council members who had supported the legislation from the start and by activists who’d done the lion’s share of the work.
“This is a huge win for democracy, but the fight for residents to comment at city council committee meetings has really just begun,” said Michelle Jackson, a member of CPC, in a press release. “Policy-making happens in the committees and that is where the voice of the public can have the most impact. But we now have the model for how to fight city hall and win!”