Cleveland Documenters examine opportunities for members of the public to speak at Cleveland City Council meetings
by Doug Breehl-Pitorak
(Plain Press, April 2021) The lack of a public comment period – a space for residents to speak – at Cleveland City Council meetings is once again on the civic radar. A group called Clevelanders for City Council Reform in March released a plan that advocates for a proposed ordinance that requires a regular public comment period at City Council meetings and sets some rules and limits for how it could work.
Cleveland Documenters, which trains and pays residents to attend and share notes from public meetings, checked out the current routes for making comments at public meetings; council’s rules already allow it, and multiple council members said residents were welcome at committee meetings, where legislation is discussed.
Council Clerk Patricia Britt said no records track requests to comment or how often citizens speak at meetings.
An (unscientific) review of Cleveland Documenters notes from 52 of City Council’s regular and committee meetings held from Nov. 18 through March 12 revealed that members of the public — not employed by the city or an organization in or aiming to contract with the city — rarely commented.
What is public comment?
Public comment is a way for residents to address government or elected officials during meetings where they consider and vote on legislation. A public comment period lets residents share information or opinion on community matters.
What is the state of public comment at Cleveland City Council?
- City Council holds “regular” meetings, where all 17 members meet as council and do the business of the city by voting on legislation that creates or changes laws or approves expenditures
- City Council also holds committee meetings, where members discuss legislation and decide whether it should be voted on; there are currently 11 committees
- Occasionally, City Council will hold special community meetings to hear from residents
Public comment at regular council meetings
Except for a brief time in the 1920s and 1930s, City Council has not routinely held a space for public comment in its regular meetings.
Public comment at committee meetings
At committee meetings, the council has a process for residents to speak. They must contact the council member who chairs the committee. The chairperson ultimately decides whether to invite someone to speak.
What does the law say?
Ohio law and Cleveland’s city charter mandate that government meetings be held publicly. But: Ohio law neither requires nor bans public comment; Cleveland’s charter neither requires nor bans public comment; and the city charter gives council the authority to make its own rules.
There is historical precedent for allowing public comment at Cleveland City Council meetings. Clevelanders for City Council Reform shared some information it gleaned from council’s city archivist, Chuck Mocsiran: Cleveland’s city charter mandated public comment from 1924-1931; and at that time, Cleveland had a city manager and a mayor position that was mostly ceremonial.
Mocsiran said that, despite that mandate, he could not find any record of resident comments made to council.
Here is a section of the 1924 city charter mandating public comment:
Meetings of Council.
Section 8. At eight o’clock p.m. on the first Monday in January next following a regular municipal election, the Council shall meet at the usual place for holding such meetings, at which time the newly elected members shall assume the duties of office. Thereafter the Council shall meet at such times as may be prescribed by ordinance or resolution, but not less frequently than once each week. Special meetings of the Council shall be called by the City Clerk upon the written request of the Mayor, the City Manager, or five members. At least twelve hours’ written notice of special meetings shall be served personally on each member or left at his usual place of residence. Any such notice shall state the subject to be considered at the meeting and no other subject shall be there considered. All meetings of the Council, and of committees thereof, shall be open to the public and the Council shall provide by its rules that citizens shall have a reasonable opportunity to be heard at any such meeting in regard to any matter considered, or to be considered, thereat. Any citizen shall have access to the minutes and record of the Council at all reasonable times.
How do other regional legislative bodies handle public comment?
Clevelanders for City Council Reform is one group pushing for a regular public comment period at City Council. It supports a proposed public comment city ordinance written by Jessica Trivisonno, the director of economic development for the Detroit-Shoreway and Cudell community development corporations. Her research for the ordinance showed that public comment is either mandated or regularly permitted in the legislative councils serving Cuyahoga County, the City of Columbus and Akron City Council. Each allows residents to submit forms requesting to speak at meetings.
Details such as when the public comment period occurs in a council meeting, how long people can speak, and how many people can speak per meeting varies.
What else did we learn?
Cleveland Documenters asked Council Clerk Britt, Chief of Communications Joan Mazzolini, and — via survey — all 17 council members about the process for public comment requests. The consensus answer was “contact the committee chairperson.”
The committee chair has full discretion on whether to invite a resident to the table (real or virtual) to be heard. This process isn’t clear to many residents, and it isn’t outlined on City Council’s web site.
How can a resident arrange to speak at a committee meeting?
1. Find the correct committee.
2. Identify the chair of that committee.
3. Figure out when the committee will meet. (Find the calendar at clevelandcitycouncil.org/calendar)
4. Contact the chair and ask to speak at a meeting.
A contact form on the web site lets residents submit comments and questions. Each council member’s webpage has contact information for them or their assistants.
What are the paths to creating public comment in Cleveland?
Public comment can become a required part of council’s regular and committee meetings in one of two ways: 1. Council passes a city ordinance mandating a public comment period; and 2. Council changes its rules to require a public comment period.
The rules already permit residents to be heard.
Rule 2: Meetings- Public. All meetings of the Council or its committees shall be public, and upon request of any citizen desiring to be heard on any matter then under consideration by the Council, the Council may, on motion, resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole and hear that citizen at the date, time and for the length of time as Council may determine. Persons desiring to be heard by any committee of Council on any matter then under consideration may, by consent of such committee, be given an opportunity to be heard. All Rules of Council minutes and records of the Council shall be open to the public at all reasonable times, upon request.
To make a public comment period routine, council could change its rules.
Mazzolini said council members try to engage with their constituents outside of official meetings. Prior to the pandemic, each council member held public meetings in their wards, she said. Now, many council members hold these meetings via Zoom.
Council Member Kerry McCormack, Ward 3, recently started to use an online form to gather questions and comments in advance of Health & Human Services Committee meetings. Still, the chairperson–in this case McCormack–decides which comments and questions to bring to the meeting.
What do council members say about public comment?
Cleveland Documenters sent a short survey to all 17 council members on March 2. Three responded: Council Members Blaine Griffin, Ward 6; Basheer Jones, Ward 7; and Mike Polensek, Ward 8.
Here are the highlights of their responses:
What are the options for public comment?
Council members who responded pointed to committee meetings as potential spaces for public comment. Polensek added that public comment in regular meetings could occur via invitation from Council President Kevin Kelley, Ward 13. He said a citizen can speak at a committee meeting if the chair requests that.
Griffin said people can “sign up” to speak at committee meetings, though the chair ultimately decides whether to invite someone to a meeting.
Are you in favor of a regular public comment period in City Council meetings?
Polensek and Griffin said maybe. Jones said yes. Polensek said council would have to “greatly” limit the amount of time given to public comment if it became part of the regular agenda.
Griffin explained his hesitancy to commit to public comment: Council members who “do the job right” already spend a lot of time communicating with the public before making their decisions; not everyone wants to speak publicly, potentially leaving the “microphone” only for those who are comfortable speaking publicly; and Griffin’s concern is that a vocal minority can “seem like a much larger presence than they actually are.” He said he’s seen that scenario, and it left other community members frustrated.
“People have an opportunity to communicate with me through the entire political process,” Griffin said. “But once it’s time to vote and defend a position, that should be reserved for the people who are elected by their community.”
All three council members said they prefer to make any changes using the council rule-change process.
If you have a plan to establish a public comment period at City Council meetings, please share.
Polensek said he envisions a public comment period before the regular council meeting. Griffin said he would be “more than happy” to make time for special hearings to hear from the public, though he would “strongly prohibit” abusive language directed toward council members or the mayor.
Jones didn’t offer details about his plan via our survey, other than to say, “The people must stand with the council members who are willing to fight for it.”
Created by Cleveland Documenters Civic Reporter Doug Breehl-Pitorak. Comments or questions? Email DougBP@neighborhoodgrants.org.
Editor’s Note: Plain Press readers and candidates for public office are invited to contribute to creating a more progressive city. The newly created website “Lake Effects: Progressive thinking for the Cleveland we want” offers an opportunity for you to contribute your ideas. The site created by David Beach is now online at: lake-effects.org. “The goal of the site is to create a resource for citizens and candidates for Mayor and City Council that will provide a useful collection of issues and ideas while stimulating a discussion about what a progressive city can be like,” says David Beach.