Cleveland Community Leaders Send Letter to Council Prez Kevin Kelley, Call for Democratic Reforms

click to enlarge City Council President Kevin Kelley - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
Sam Allard / Scene
City Council President Kevin Kelley

Cleveland's democracy is on life support, nearly 40 neighborhood activists and community leaders claimed in an open letter to City Council President Kevin Kelley last week. They called for a series of "budget neutral" reforms that they say would both improve transparency at City Hall and "breathe new life" into city governance.

Signed by residents in all 17 Cleveland wards and forwarded to every member of Cleveland City Council, the letter was positioned as an urgent response to voter apathy and civic disengagement citywide.

"The level of civic disengagement in Cleveland threatens to thwart any promise of progress," it reads. "Only structural change to democratize Cleveland City Hall can provide the necessary medicine to our ailing governing institutions." 

The letter's top-line demand is for the implementation of a public comment period at City Council meetings. This has been a sustained request from residents in recent years. Due to a lack of response, council and mayoral candidates in 2021 are now making support for public comment planks in their campaign platforms.

The other demands are familiar as well: One asks that council adopt a more accessible schedule for council committee meetings so that residents who work traditional daytime hours have an opportunity to attend and participate. Another asks council to do away with its appointment tradition, whereby outgoing council members appoint their own heirs without public input.

The final two requests relate to council procedures: eliminating the outdated "unit rule," which mandates that all members belonging to the same political party vote as a unit when the rule is invoked. As the letter notes, the rule not only restricts "diverse and varied viewpoints"; it's also no longer necessary as a tool to leverage the full might of a partisan voting bloc, because all 17 members of council are Democrats. The last reform calls for limiting the "emergency" designation on legislation, on the theory that new ordinances should be more thoroughly and publicly vetted.

Ward 17's Nora Kelley was one of the letter's principal authors. She told Scene that its writing was motivated in large part because many of the signatories worked on Get Out the Vote efforts in 2020 and were alarmed by the results.

"We had really disappointing turnout numbers in Cleveland," she told Scene by phone. "And we need to be making a connection between how we govern our city and the ramifications in terms of how folks feel engaged in the democratic process."

The letter, which is attached in full below, quoted a Cleveland.com editorial to the same effect. Apathy, that editorial read, "isn't a constant state of being. It's a result of elected officials' failures over many years to make voters feel that their voices matter."

Nora Kelley noted that nearly half of the letter's signatories were members of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party's central and/or Executive committees and therefore intimately understood the importance of community engagement at the precinct level.

Council President Kevin Kelley has not yet responded to requests for comment.



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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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