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).
Cleveland City Council agreed in principle Monday that a public comment period should be permitted at evening council meetings. Though council did not vote to introduce an ordinance to that effect, Council President Kevin Kelley said council staff would now begin drafting a rule change with the expectation that council will hold a vote within "a reasonable amount of time."
Given the delays and can-kicking on the popular issue up to this point, it's impossible to guess what "reasonable" may here connote. And given the tenor of the conversation Monday, it looks likely that the resulting rule change will differ in important ways from the legislation proposed by the citywide activist coalition Clevelanders for Public Comment, drafted by resident Jessica Trivisonno.
There was no discussion, in fact, on whether or not to codify public comment as a law in the city charter, which would require an ordinance (and which a majority of council members have already agreed to co-sponsor and have asked repeatedly to be introduced.) Kelley never acknowledged that possibility. He merely weighed council's support for public comment in the context of a rule change. Councilman Charles Slife had to chime in at one point to clarify what was going on, and said he'd personally support the ordinance route precisely because council's oral tradition with respect to its governing rules has a tendency to be unreliable. Council also can, and frequently does, suspend its rules, which means public comment could be dispensed with whenever Kelley or the next council president feels like it.
The meeting Monday bristled with tension just below the surface, despite the fact that public comment was ostensibly supported by everyone. It began, appropriately enough, with public comment from Jessica Trivisonno and Nora Kelley, representing Clevelanders for Public Comment. They recapped the proposed ordinance, which calls for a 30-minute regular public speaking period at council's Monday meetings and committee hearings.
Nora Kelley pointed out that CPC had been doing the heavy lifting — building public support, conducting research into best practices, coordinating a City Club forum — while council leadership ignored the group's outreach for months. Trivisonno said that even if council opted to pursue a rule change instead of an ordinance, CPC's priority was that the procedure be made clear. She noted that her difficulty signing up to speak Monday was illustrative of the problems with the current system. She was a practicing lawyer who is familiar with speaking before public bodies, she said, but even she couldn't be sure if she'd done things properly. (She and Nora Kelley received Zoom links Monday morning and confirmation that they'd be allowed to speak. Public comment remains at the discretion of the committee chair, in the current system.)
A vocal minority of councilpeople continued to voice opposition to the proposal, though they purported to be in favor of increased engagement in theory.
Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, for example, defended the existing mechanisms for public comment at committee hearings and the value of interfacing with constituents in casual, ward-based settings. Councilman Blaine Griffin gave a speech about equity and said he worried that without intentional "officiating," public comment could be dominated by privileged residents who "descend" upon council to shine recurring lights on pet issues. Griffin has long been council's concern-troll-in-chief on the public comment issue.
Not for nothing, but the legislation proposed by CPC includes safeguards to promote equity. Residents can only comment once per calendar month, for example. Sign-up forms must be available online and in hard copies. It is designed to make the process straightforward and transparent for everybody, which is in marked contrast to the current system, where only the most deeply engaged and persistent residents win the opportunity to speak at committees.
The rule change under consideration contains two key departures from the CPC proposal. For one thing, it only concerns itself with Monday evening meetings. CPC wants to institute the same procedure at committee meetings as well. For another, the council rule change would only allow residents to speak about items on the agenda for that meeting.
That's a distinction that councilwoman Jenny Spencer questioned. Isn't there value, she wondered, in having a forum for residents to speak on whatever topic they'd like to speak about? Moreover, Spencer said, most residents don't know how to access council agendas.
Most of her colleagues disagreed, and said that keeping residents on topic would enhance the "flow" of the meeting and lessen the burden on council staff.
Speaking with Scene after the meeting, Nora Kelley said that restricting public comment to agenda items only threatened to make the rule change "public comment in name only."
"It doesn't allow residents to raise important, thorny issues facing the city," she said. "Lead is the perfect example. If residents had been able to attend meetings and comment on that for years, think of how much sooner there would have been legislation."
The point is that lead poisoning was not
on council's agenda. Only though citizen engagement and persistent public pressure can residents put these issues and gnarly philosophical questions on council's radar.
Kelley said that Kevin Kelley had successfully turned the question of a straightforward policy change that virtually everyone supports into "an arcane procedural debate [about an ordinance versus a rule change]." She said that CPC's focus was ensure that whatever route council took, a public comment period is instituted n both name and substance.
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