Momentum for Public Comment in Cleveland Grows with Additional City Council Support


Ward 15 Councilwoman Jenny Spencer speaks in favor of adding a public comment period at Cleveland City Council meetings, (4/12/21). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Ward 15 Councilwoman Jenny Spencer speaks in favor of adding a public comment period at Cleveland City Council meetings, (4/12/21).

With the recent addition of Collinwood Councilman Mike Polensek, the coalition of Cleveland City Council members supporting an ordinance to establish a regular public comment period at City Council meetings has grown to seven.

At a press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday afternoon, Polensek joined his colleagues Kerry McCormack (Ward 3), Basheer Jones (Ward 7), Jasmin Santana (Ward 14), Jenny Spencer (Ward 15), Brian Kazy (Ward 16), and Charles Slife (Ward 17). They all publicly embraced the proposal of the activist organization Clevelanders for Public Comment, drafted by Ward 3 resident Jessica Trivisonno. They plan to introduce legislation soon. 

The seven council members' support adds momentum to an issue that has become central in the 2021 municipal elections. Ward 12 city council candidate Rebecca Maurer launched her campaign earlier this year with a public engagement pledge that asked both incumbents and challengers to support three policies to increase civic engagement and promote a better relationship between City Hall and residents. An official public comment period topped that list.

Others have ardently signed on, recognizing the insularity of City Hall as a key reason for voter apathy and abysmal participation in local elections. Mayoral candidate Justin Bibb was in attendance Monday, holding one side of the Clevelanders for Public Comment banner. The press conference on the steps of City Hall was symbolic, event organizers said: Residents should be welcomed by city government, not barred at the gates. 

Clevelanders for Public Comment, as an organization, has been gathering support citywide for months. Ward 4 activist Michelle Jackson noted in remarks Monday that many issues in Cleveland divide the city, east vs. west. But support for public comment has united citizens across town. A letter to City Council President Kevin Kelley calling for a public comment period and other good government reforms was signed by activists and organizers in all 17 of the city's wards. Kelley responded to that letter last week, providing conditional support for a public comment period, pending the recommendation of council's "Research Policy Cluster. (Kelley has been Council President for years, many have noted, and if he seriously supported public comment, he would have instituted it long ago.)

Kelley has noted in the past, and noted in his most recent correspondence, that public comment is already permitted at council committee hearings.

Jessica Trivosonno said Monday that while this is technically true, there currently exists no formal, predictable process to sign up. Comments are extremely rare at committee meetings, and are only allowed after personal outreach to the committee chair.

Trivisonno's proposal, which was written after extensive research into the policies of peer cities, calls for a 30-minute comment period at Monday evening council meetings. Those wishing to comment may sign up in advance via a form that must be available online and in hard copy. Each commenter may speak for a maximum of three minutes, until the 30-minute allotment expires. As proposed, those who sign up but are unable to speak due to time constraints would be given priority at the following meeting. Under the proposal, the same protocols would apply to council's committee hearings, with comments limited to the committee's business.   

Councilwoman Jenny Spencer, speaking Monday, said there was a crisis of democracy in Cleveland. She referenced the dispiriting 2020 election turnout in Cleveland. 

"Touchpoints with local government matter," she said. "While public comment is not a cure-all, it will contribute to a culture of citizen involvement and engagement, and it will help to build trust between elected leaders and residents. We can implement public comment, and we should implement public comment."

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