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City Club hosts Clevelanders for Public Comment in a forum and a mock public comments session

City Club hosts Clevelanders for Public Comment in a forum and a mock public comments session

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, May 2021)      The resident led movement, Clevelanders for Public Comment, now has a majority of Cleveland City Council — nine members — committed to passing legislation written by Near West Side activist Jessica Trivisonno that would create a public comment period at Cleveland City Council meetings. The nine City Council members now in support of the legislation are: Joseph Jones, Ward 1; Kerry McCormack, Ward 3; Basheer Jones, Ward 7; Mike Polensek, Ward 8; Kevin Conwell, Ward 9 ; Jasmin Santana, Ward 14; Jenny Spencer, Ward 15; Brian Kazy, Ward 16; and Charles Slife, Ward 17.

Clevelanders for Public Comment and Council co-sponsors issued a press release saying they are asking for quick action on the public comment ordinance following the comprehensive research and analysis conducted in advance of crafting the legislation.  A synthesis of the full research and detailed explainer can be found here: https://cle4publiccomment.com/proposed-ordinance-analysis-and-explanation/

On April 21st, the Cleveland City Club hosted “Breaking the Silence: A new tradition of public comment in Cleveland?” This forum, moderated by Nick Castele, featured Near West Side activist Jessica Trivisonno, author of the proposed ordinance, and two City Council members, Basheer Jones and Charles Slife, who support the ordinance. Following the forum, seven community members were each granted three minutes to speak in a mock public comment demonstration.

     In explaining the proposed legislation at the start of the City Club Forum, Jessica Trivisonno said, “The proposal that has been drafted is really based on best practices pulled from other cities, both in Ohio and around the country.  The way that public comment would work is at City Council Meetings there would be a 30-minute public comment session at the beginning of each Council Meeting. Individuals would have up to three minutes to share a comment.”

     Trivisonno said comments would be limited to matters that concern local government– legislative, administrative, or public affairs of the city of Cleveland. Individuals would have to sign up ahead of time to make a comment. They can sign up, up to a week in advance using a form available online and in person that is available in English and Spanish, said Trivisonno. 

     The legislation would create a process for speaking at both the meetings of City Council as a whole and at committee meetings, she said, while noting that speaking at committee meetings would be limited to items on the agenda of that committee.

     Ward 7 City Council Representative Basheer Jones explained that for the past several years he and several other Council members have been working on this on the inside and could not get majority support in Cleveland City Council for creating a public comment period.

     Jones explained how Citizens for Public Comment brought the issue to the forefront.  “This is a serious issue. Our city will never grow until everyone feels they are part of its growth. That everyone has something to say about its growth. So, with this amazing group organizing on the ground and putting pressure where it needs to be, now you have members who were once silent now coming out and wanting to show they are in support.”

     “From here it is about what is the next step. I’m urging every member of our community to continue to hold us accountable. People can say whatever they want to say in the wave of emotion, but when it is time to vote, that is when you see people put their words into action,” said Jones.

     Jones said that the internal debate in City Council is whether we go the policy route making the public comment period by changing City Council rules or passing legislation to create the public comment period.

     Moderator Castele explained that Council President Kevin Kelley has suggested that the proposal be studied by City Council’s rules and operations committees for a possible change in Council rules.

     Councilman Charles Slife praised Citizens for Public Comment, saying, “This is an incredibly broad coalition. They have a website. You can see different activists, labor unions and people from all throughout Cleveland that have come together behind this idea. There is really an unanimity that this is the best practice of good government.”

     He explained why City Council sponsors of the Public Comments proposal want it to go through the legislative process. “I’ve always thought public comment was somewhat of a requirement, and I was surprised we didn’t have it in Cleveland City Council meetings. But to your question as to whether it is a policy, or whether it is legislation, I think I speak for myself, Councilman Jones and other sponsors of this legislation that there is a real value in it being codified law in the City of Cleveland. I will not be on City Council forever. Councilman Jones will not be on City Council forever. Life goes on without us. By enacting a law, it puts the idea — carves it in stone. It makes it a fundamental right of Clevelanders to petition their government.”

     “Any elected official who is opposed to what Jessica and others are talking about just doesn’t want to hear the voice of the people,” said Jones. He noted that there is still opposition. “The fact that someone says we need to do policy work is a form of opposition,” Jones added. 

     “We know the issue. We know why it is not passing …There is a group of people who don’t want to hear the voices of the people …These are the same individuals who hear the voices of corporations over the voices of the people. We have to call it as it is. These are the same individuals who continue to stand in the way of progress.  They continue to block it.  What do you mean send it to policy? What are you talking about? We know the problem. People want to speak,” said Jones

     Following the speakers, Jessica Trivisonno moderated a mock public comment period in which seven citizens participated each speaking for up to three minutes

     The first resident, Terry McNeal, called for a heavy investment in public works.  McNeal said that public works needs to be reimagined in three areas: the conditions of streets, the conditions of lots and in recycling. He called on the City of Cleveland to partner with Cuyahoga County to create a massive recycling center to service Northeast Ohio. He talked about recycling asphalt. He called for recycling tires and turning them into products that can be sold. He urged maintenance of vacant lots to begin in March each year. McNeal also urged that the City spend the CARES ACT wisely and put together a brain trust with experience in logistics to devise a plan.

     Courtney Kishbaugh, an Ohio City resident, asked “How are City Council members preparing for the rush of Federal funding that is coming?”  She said federals dollars also will become available for expanding broadband, lead paint abatement, and brownfield cleanup. She urged City Council to set up a structure to be ready not only for American Rescue Plan funding, but also to apply for competitive grants from organizations such as Nex-Tech, Nex-Generation, and Bloomberg Cities.

      Kishbaugh said she didn’t want Cleveland to miss this opportunity for once in a lifetime federal funding.  “How can we start making this a priority in city government? What offices need to be responsible for coordination? How can we start thinking about this, because when the money starts flowing, it is going to flow fast” she emphasized.

     Ross DiBello, a mayoral candidate from the West Park neighborhood, said, it wasn’t enough that supermajority of us wanted public comment, but the reason we are finally getting this public will enacted is that “In election years where uncertainty reigns, governments are far more likely to do be kind to those they serve. They are far more likely, whether they think it is right or wrong, just to do what we want. It is not enough that we have always had a supermajority of us wanting public comment, it has got to be close to voting time. As we know in Cleveland, an entrenched establishment, means that nobody is threatened by change. People here rule for three or four decades and never vote, or budget, the way their constituents demand,” said DiBello.

     “So, on any issue: If we want Burke to look like Edgewater; if we want criminal justice reform; if we don’t want to be number one in the nation in poverty; if we don’t want the Q-Deal or these other handouts as they are currently constructed; If we want immediate lead paint remediation; if we want to pay $7 million dollars of our taxes for recycling as opposed to the façade of a recycling truck; if we ever want issues passed, where we have a super majority of us in agreement to pass, we have to have a functioning democracy, instead of a machine entrenchment. Therefore, we need term limits, just like the president has. We need significant campaign finance reform to create government representative of real Clevelanders. We need to end this machine appointment process. And we need petition initiative reform,” said DiBello.

     “If we get this type of responsiveness out of our representatives consistently, not just a few months before an uncertain election, we can finally start heading in the right direction for the entire city. We can finally start turning our population loss into prosperity. But we have to put Clevelanders back in charge of Cleveland. We can’t just win on one common sense thing like public comment. We have to win on big issue, after big issue, after big issue — to attack our humanitarian problems, to make our tax dollars work harder for us,” said DiBello.

     Rebeca Maurer, resident of Slavic Village neighborhood and an attorney, has worked for years to protect Cleveland’s children by fighting for lead safe housing. Maurer said she believed the City of Cleveland should use a portion of that $541 million it is about to receive from the American Rescue Plan to make Cleveland’s homes lead safe. 

     Maurer said ”90% of Cleveland’s homes were built before 1978 which means they most likely have lead hazards which need to be safely contained. Right now, that safe containment is not happening, 25% of Cleveland’s kindergarteners have had at least one elevated blood lead level test.”

     Maurer said Cleveland passed a strong lead safe law in 2019 and in 2021 is implementing it and has put in place a lead safe resource center. While she is proud of the efforts, the existing program has only raised $35 million to help landlords to fix up their properties. Maurer proposed using a portion of the $541 million in federal dollars for the Lead Safe Cleveland program. She said for $20 million the city of Cleveland could have enough money for lead clearance examines for every single property in the City of Cleveland. She said with $100 million of the federal funds we could cover the entire expected cost of the Lead Safe Cleveland Program.

     Diane Morgan said, “I’d like to address the funding that is coming in from the American Rescue Act. What I’d like to address is an effort to look at the underlying issues of poverty that effects everything in our city from safety and crime to homelessness. We need to start creating programs that will lift people out of poverty.”

     Morgan called for investing in small businesses that will create jobs at a minimum wage of at least $15 per hour; provide job training in the trades and apprenticeships for high school students graduating and for people re-entering society after incarceration. 

     Morgan called for ending tax abatements in neighborhoods that are doing well, like some neighborhoods on the west side of Cleveland, and using that money as a stimulus to develop mixed use housing in east side corridors that are struggling economically and could really use that help.

     Xinyuan Cui (they/them), a community organizer in Asia Town, said they would like the city to use funds to address the root causes of race-based violence and make sure COVID Relief funding is accessible to immigrants and undocumented communities. Xinyuan Cui said people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are left behind or are struggling and don’t have access to services because of language barriers. Translators and language services are needed to help residents have timey access to available programs. 

     Cui said investing in law enforcement can’t prevent mass shootings that happened elsewhere from happening here. Cui said, “The traditional passive reaction can’t protect us, instead we need investment for long term safety and recovery in our community.  In Asia town our kids don’t have safe playgrounds, our seniors are afraid of walking outside, without legal support our residents can’t apply for drivers’ licenses – so, we have to rely on public transportation. However, the design of bus routes and stops is not convenient for us. For now, the buses are not safe for people who look like us.” 

     Cui said, “We need funding for best gender intervention training, and for all-languages incident report hotlines all set up for law enforcement. We need funding for culturally competent mental health and victim assistance services. We need more streetlights and need more parks.  We need access for support for all residents that don’t have documentation and are scared to ask for help. I want to ask our city to invest in building community infrastructure and access to language resources as we try to live our lives here and to recover from the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism.”

     Camilo Villa is a resident of Ward 15 and serves as the staff representative and organizer for Service Employees International Union, Local 1, the Janitor’s Union in Cleveland. “What I would like to address today,” said Villa, “… are the ways in which Council and our government here in Cleveland use public funds in ways that often undermine good paying jobs for Cleveland residents, both in terms of the rewarding of developers who refuse to make commitments to create good jobs for Clevelanders, and refuse to maintain hard fought standards that union janitors have won over decades in the city. We have seen an emerging pattern of Council giving millions of dollars of development grants and loans to companies who refuse to make commitments to the people who will be serving their buildings in the long term.”

     “Related, Council also has been approving leases for city departments to property owners who have engaged in blatant and outright union busting. This is a deep concern. The majority of Cleveland’s janitors live in the city. The majority are women. The majority are black. Those that aren’t black are usually Latino. The City Council has declared racism a public health crisis, which we applauded, and we agree with, but it is really important that Council puts its money where its mouth is.”

     “I want to acknowledge that there are members of Council, including those leading this forum, who have stood up for janitors and other low-income workers in Cleveland. Unfortunately, often our voices go unheard,” said Villa.

     “Now there is also an issue where council will pick winners and losers in terms of unions they will support. They are frequently papering over their decision to support union busting contractors by saying ‘well they use the building trades.’ That’s great. The building trades should be union. No one should be building in Cleveland non-union. But when it comes to who is cleaning those buildings, who is securing those buildings, who is doing the food service in those buildings — if the developers are using the primarily white, primarily suburban contractors for building their properties, but not allowing the primarily black, primarily urban, primarily low-income people to have a right to have a union in their building, then this is hollow and not a true commitment to racial justice,” said Villa.

In his final statement Villa said, “I also want to add that lack of public comment creates an inherit hostility between the working people of Cleveland and their government.”

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