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 will formally vote Wednesday on two minor amendments to its rules that should allow public comment at its Monday meetings. The rules themselves are little more than tweaks to existing language.
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
last week 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 Friday with additional details on the procedures themselves, which aren't specified in the rule. 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 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."
Moreover, given that Britt's procedures, as presented Friday, so closely resemble CPC's demands, Trivisonno said she was confused why council wouldn't simply vote on their version.
As it stands, Britt's procedures aren't likely to be completed until next month. Council expects to begin allowing comment at its Sept. 20th meeting.
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."
Trivisonno said that she and a number of CPC members made requests to comment at this week's committee of the whole meeting, for example, and have not yet heard back. (She said being ignored tends to be more common than being officially approved or denied.)
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."
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