Ten Clevelanders address City Council Meeting during its first Public Comments period in over 100 years 

(Plain Press, November 2021)   Ten Cleveland citizens took part in a historic event, the first Public Comments period at a Cleveland City Council meeting in over 100 years. The occasion was the Monday October 4, 2021 meeting of Cleveland City Council. The ten citizens taking advantage of this public forum to speak to their fellow citizens and to City Council members were: Grace Heffernan, Robin Brown, Sara Gutierrez, Michael Hardy, Randy Cunningham, Andy Schuman, Ross DiBello, Yvonka Marie Hall, Mario Pollard, and Darrick L. Wade.

     The Plain Press staff transcribed their comments from a YouTube video on the City Council website in order to present to our readers what their fellow citizens chose to say at this new venue on this historic occasion.

Grace Heffernan

     Grace Heffernan, the first person in over a hundred years to address City Council in a Public Comments period, addressed City Council with the following comments: 

     “Wow! What a thrill! Here I am, number one baby! Alright. Thank you — City Council members –thank you for opening up City Council meetings for public comment. And thank you to community organizers, a few of whom I see here today, who worked so hard to bring this practice to Cleveland.

     “My name is Grace Heffernan and I’m commenting today on behalf of the Northeast Ohio Worker Center. There are two time-sensitive issues that I’d like to bring your attention to. The first is a federal grant opportunity, currently open to states to create a more equitable state unemployment compensation system. Even in the best of times, the process to apply and receive benefits — for many unemployed Ohioans – it’s complex, it’s intimidating, and its dehumanizing. We saw that in even greater clarity in the pandemic. While I know that Cleveland City Council is far away from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, I know that the pain that workers felt during the pandemic is not. And so, it is my hope that you can advocate to our local ODJFS partners & others that you may know wo are connected to our unemployment system to make sure the state does not miss this opportunity.

     “And secondly, I know that you are right now, this very day, in fact, considering how to spend the city’s American Rescue Plan dollars. So, I hope you are able to see beyond your individual wards, to the opportunity to create some really transformational change for workers. So here are a couple of ways I think you could do that. The first is hazard pay for essential workers—many on the front lines of COVID 19 are among the city’s lowest paid workers.  You can honor their everyday heroism with premium hazard pay. ARP allows for up to $25,000 of premium pay for front line workers. Frankly folks that’s a car, that’s a 401K account, that’s a down payment on a house. And you can give that today to workers.

     “Another opportunity could be increased labor enforcement laws. Ohio has just five wage investigators to protect our workforce of over five million workers. You can protect Clevelanders today, by setting up our own office of Labor Standards and Enforcement.

     “And so, if you like those ideas, I’ve got good news– there are more of them, and all you have to do is ask. I would like to encourage you to use a participatory budgeting process in the ways that you think about distributing the ARP dollars. And that’s it. That’s all she wrote. There we go. Thanks everybody!”

Robin Brown

     “Good evening, Council. First, we’d like to thank you for allowing comments again at City Council Meetings. How do we rebuild the great city in the midst of crisis? Today, we are asking City Council to fully support and approve the $30.8 million American Rescue Plan dollars representing the number of poor people in our city to Participatory Budget Cleveland, as a way to show our city is willing to listen and to allow the citizens to have some control of their destiny and that of their families for generations to come. 

     “We would like to invite you to our event that will be on October 23rd 2021, at 2 o’clock, at Luke Easter Park demonstration what Participatory Budgeting could look like in our city. Realizing that the City of Cleveland needs to have more input from the many voices and the diverse neighborhoods within our great city, there are fifty organizations that are endorsing Participatory Budgeting. 

     “What makes the City of Cleveland great? It’s the people. City Council –realize the need for Participatory Budgeting in our city. Residents have already been demonstrating this work on their own, with no, or minimal financial support from our city administrators. We get them through small grants or personal dollars. Folks have been making great change in their neighborhoods and communities. Collectively the Citizens of Cleveland have raised substantial funds to make a difference in their communities. Such as the organization I first started CCOAL – Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead – that is advocating for families of lead poisoned children – which is another topic we need to touch. 

     “The best ideas come from the people being afflicted by the devastation being inflicted in our communities. We have sat around the tables, on the porch, on the sidewalks with other neighbors creating sustainable solutions to our problems. It is time for our city leadership to start listening to their constituents who voted them into office or positions and stop working in silos. We need Participatory Budgeting to work for us through our neighborhood small grants and other places within the country it does work – Washington, San Francisco, even New York as an example. 

     “As residents in the City of Cleveland we are tired of being on life support, feeling disappointed in our elected leadership, making us feel as if our voice doesn’t matter in assisting to in bringing sustainable solutions for our city for generations to come. 

     “Again, today we are asking City Council to fully support and approve the $30.8 million dollars, representing the number of poor people in our city, for Participatory Budgeting Cleveland.”

Sara Gutierrez

     “Hello, my name is Sara Gutierrez, and I am here on behalf of the Art Workers Collective. We are a group of people, mostly composed of aspiring full time working artists, who want to improve the material conditions of artworkers in Northeast Ohio.

     “The labor of artists — including but not limited to musicians, visual artists, film makers, tattoo artists, jewelry makers, dancers, writers, photographers, poets, clothing designers, sculptors, etcetera – their labor is work. And it is cultural work that often makes a place one where people want to live and a place where people want to spend their money. It is work in the way that teaching is work, in the way that driving a bus is work, and in the way that serving on City Council is work. Because artist are workers.

     “However, art workers, as described by the Economics Research Group of Indiana University, perpetually experience a lack of return on their educational training and have less access to social provisions such as health care and affordable housing compared to other workers. Art workers are faced with barriers when trying to obtain health insurance including affordability, and the fact that health insurance companies view artists as high-risk individuals.

     “Art workers are often contracted or free lanced and unable to access employer-based health care programs. And artists unions, while fantastic, are far and few. I often hear people in Cleveland discuss the sort of brain drain to the coasts of young, educated people leaving, and I want the people in this room to know that in artists circles this is discussed as well. 

     “And we believe that eventually, if living conditions for artists here do not improve, if funding does not increase, and structural changes are not made to support the livelihood of cultural workers, the people producing the work will leave. And the city of Cleveland, a city that claims itself as an arts and cultural hub, will unfortunately suffer for it. I ask that the next time you attend a live music concert at a beloved independent Cleveland venue — something that has been scientifically proven to help you manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance your memory and improve your quality of life — something I’m sure we all seek during these times— that you look around note that the person running sound, the person who checked your ticket, and the people on stage performing most definitely don’t have health insurance through the work that they are providing for your benefit.”

Michael Hardy

     “Greetings, Holla, Salam Aliakum … (and greetings in several additional languages)

     “Thank you, President Kelley, Council Members, and everyone for having this session. My name is Michael Hardy, I live in Ward 11.  It is a pleasure and an honor to speak before the Council and to participate in this public comment session. I glad to see a version of public comment has been adopted. So, with public comment, Cleveland joins its peer cities. Cleveland is a wonderful city. The best location in the nation. And now we have what our peer cities have – public comment. This will give residents an elevated platform for free speech in the City of Cleveland. Public Comment brings City Hall and residents closer. It is a real commitment to engaging the opinions of the pubic.

     “Comments from residents have tremendous value and this platform elevates the residents in a participatory manner. These opinions and observations of the public will result in insightful thoughts that will help the city get things accomplished quicker and in a better way. Public comment might take people to places they have not been. Whether people choose to participate with the spoken word or with the written word, the comments will be made public and this helps keep people and everyone informed.

     “The issue — whether it is a leaning electric pole somewhere, graffiti, or a street that needs repairs — these things will get attention and that is a big positive. Public comment policy opens up the city to many possibilities. This gives the public a real voice. I hope over time people will see the benefits of public comment, how it can really move us forward, and how it can be beneficial to the Council and to the City of Cleveland. Hopefully, over time, people will see it is better for the city and better for everyone. With engagement that results in fresher ideas having a public forum is very, very good government, having a public forum is very, very American. My name is Michael Hardy and I thank you for your time. Have a wonderful evening everyone.”

Randy Cunningham

     “This first night of having a public comment period in Cleveland City Council Meeting should be a time of celebration. It should also be a time of reflection and learning. 

     “First off, we should all wonder why. Why did it take 100 years to restore what is the norm in so many cities, villages and townships in Ohio and the rest of the country? It was a simple matter of changing the rules for council or passing an ordinance. Instead, it was greeted by the powers that be in Council with all the enthusiasm that would greet a resolution endorsing cannibalism. Was it a fear that it would get out of control? Out of control was when citizens were forced to stand up and yell in Monday Council meetings when they were shut out of being able to comment on issues in an orderly manner. 

     “Why a hundred years of public silence? I think public comment was resisted because it did not come from City Council, it did not come from the Greater Cleveland Partnership, it did not come from the Mayor’s Office. It came from the grass roots, and the traditional attitude from the City Council to initiatives from the grass roots is ‘kill it before it multiplies.’ We saw this with the Vote for $15 initiative, we saw this with the Q (Quicken Loans Arena) controversy, we saw this with the CLASH campaign to end the embarrassment of Cleveland’s lead program, we saw this with the Public Comment proposal. City Council too often has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything other than attending to the needs and whims of developers and tycoons. And the people who do the dragging are the activists of Cleveland such as myself and such as the Clevelanders for Public Comment. 

     “So, this debut of Cleveland City Council’s Public Comment Period is a happy moment. But it is not enough. It is not near enough. Democracy either moves forward and expands or it dies. And democracy should not be bound by the word enough. There is a long list of items to be addressed in a campaign to democratize Cleveland. It includes how emergency ordinances are used to ram through legislation with little or no discussion. There is plenty of work to be done to raise democracy from rhetoric to reality. Today Is the first step.”

Andy Schuman

     “Hi.  Thank you, President Kelley. My name is Andy Schuman. I am a resident of Ward 3, with Kerry McCormack, but I grew up in Ward 14, Jasmin Santana’s ward. I am here to speak on behalf of the Cleveland Art Workers Collective, much as my friend Sara did. 

     “Something that we exist to bring attention to is the fact that there is not a minimum wage for performers in most venues in Cleveland. So, I actually worked at a venue recently and the frightening thing about it is that often I was not able to pay out the performers that would play. Now part of the reason this happens is because – while there is a lot of things. But why I am talking to you is because I think you guys can help us put more money into the performing arts in Cleveland.

     “I think that there are a number of nonprofits that do great work with providing performers opportunities to apply for grants through them. But some of those processes are a bit bogged down and difficult to follow up — especially if you are doing your artwork full time. And you know it’s hard to fill out a grant. It’s hard to know how to fill out a loan or anything like that. So, I’m asking you guys to consider entering a conversation with the Cleveland Art Workers Collective. Sara also spoke very eloquently. Our email address is: clevelandartworkers@gmail.com. Thank you very much I am looking forward to hearing the rest of the comments.”

Ross DiBello

     “Thanks guys. I’m Ross DiBello. Thanks for having me. Thanks for allowing the comment. Go Browns.

     “I only address Council members as extensions of civilian Clevelanders because that’s what you are. You’re no better than us; we’re no better that you. And it is civilians, who are in charge of Cleveland. And it’s not every four years that we exert that power. It’s daily, with every penny, every tax dollar penny that gets spent, including on the salaries of our representatives. Right?

     “So, Councilpersons, you know recently presented wish lists for the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars that we are getting. Most of you know or remember that I believe we should look at this as an opportunity to invest and help residents create sustaining wealth for their families, rather than simply ‘what do we spend on to deplete these funds?’ You know I want to start a public bank, do wi-fi access, equipment training, other education. 

     “But that is not the bulk of my comments. As citizens in such a place that we love as Cleveland, but that has such humanitarian atrocities, we haven’t been able to trust City Hall. You know. And we can’t do so one budget, one deal, one contract longer. We have to take responsibility for the usages of our tax dollars. 

     “So, I ask my Council, on each of your wish lists, who among you listed improvements to Progressive Field? Probably nobody. Right? And on the city level this would mean $117 million more dollars for those of us who don’t get our wish list filled with the ARPA dollars. So please vote no to this corporate handout. This is the definition of insanity. This is what we have been doing. Crime, lead paint, infant mortality, the defunding of public schools and the West Side Market – these things can and will get worse. 

     “So, I’m begging us to stop doing business as usual. One of you please become a voice of the true Clevelander. Safeguard me and my neighbors’ tax dollars. We have to lift up the entire population with this money – I’m talking about the $117 million, not the $511 million. We can be cogs in the machine, or we can empower ourselves to know that we have done true good. So, please remember the concept of opportunity cost, before you acquest to one further deal, budget, or other uses of our pennies.”

Yvonka Marie Hall

     “Good evening, everybody. 

     “Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH) urges Cleveland City Council to use funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to make it easier for average families to have their children tested for lead poisoning. We the members of CLASH and the Cleveland Lead Safe Network want to make it clear that money should be set aside to invest in testing of children at two city health centers. In addition, a mobile unit must be purchased to accommodate the need to test at nontraditional locations. This is a public health emergency.

     “Making sure that our children are tested requires more than words. This requires funding. Lead poisoning cost Americans $50 billion dollars per year. ARP funds should be used to provide onsite testing for elevated blood lead levels at Cleveland’s two neighborhood clinics – McCafferty Health Center on the Near West Side and J. Glenn Smith in Glenville. 

     “We so further advocate for the use of ARP funds to equip a mobile testing lab that can conduct child lead tests at childcare and child service organizations around the city at nontraditional locations. The situation that requires overburdened moms to get a referral to a remote testing lab means taking another day off work or paying for transportation to an unfamiliar location. Providing testing services within easy reach will increase the dismal rate of child lead testing. In 2016 there were more that 14,000 children that were tested in Cleveland. Right now, that rate stands at a little over 7,000. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

     “The lead crime hypothesis is an association between elevated blood lead levels in children and increased crime rates, delinquency, and recidivism later in life. Lead is widely understood to be highly toxic to multiple organs of the body, particularly the brain. Research shows that the effect of lead in early life can extend to later on in life. 

     “Most research has focused on how lead is associated with impaired intelligence; however, we are also learning more about lead and its ties to conduct, disorders, and delinquency. 

     “We have numerous studies that talk about lead and crime. We have a crime problem in Cleveland that is directly tied to lead poisoning. Yet our rates of testing children for lead poisoning have decreased by 50% in five years. We have to do something about this. Early diagnosis of elevated lead blood levels in children is a critical first step. And finding ways to eliminate exposure to lead and mitigate the medical and behavioral  deficits children experience as they grow older.”

Mario Pollard

     “Hello everyone, my name is Mario. I am also here on behalf of CLASH – Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing. And I am here to – one, demand that American Relief Plan funds be used and directed towards increasing lead testing initiatives in this city. Specifically, as my colleague Yvonka Hall mentioned, at the two health centers, McCafferty on the Near West Side and the J. Glenn Smith center on the East Side in Glenville.

     “And, if anyone is not aware, it is time to know, lead poisoning is a public health emergency. It is a crisis. Too many cities in the country, Cleveland in particular, are failing to deal with this emergency in tangible ways. Cleveland has one of the worst lead poisoning rates in the entire nation. 

     “And if anyone is not aware of recent news, Ohio overall is second in the nation, second highest rate of children with elevated lead blood levels. This is truly a crisis. The pandemic has caused a drastic decline in childhood lead testing, not only in Cleveland, but around the country. This is specifically a problem that funds from this relief plan were made to address. And that’s what they should be going to directly addressing.

     “I believe our main key demand is a mobile lead testing van that can travel around the city to nontraditional settings, because it is not fair that overburdened and overworked parents and children have to do the most effort to get tested when they are the ones most affected by this.

     “There is no cure for lead poisoning and there is no safe level of lead in the blood for children. Testing has to become our main tool in this fight, because it is the only way we can identify the children who need our help. We can get them behavioral therapy, nutritional therapy. We can get them the help that they need, but we have to find them. We have to know who they are, and we have to know in what neighborhoods they are being most affected. And that’s all I have to say about that. Thank you.”

Darrick L. Wade

     “Good evening, Council President Kelley and the City Council members. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on behalf of the lead poisoning issue. It’s an opportunity to speak in the public forum and I want to just look at a personal note from myself and look at a personal view as it has affected my life.

     “As I review my journey since 1992 to raise the awareness of lead poisoning and its effects on children. I think of my son, Demetrius Wade, who was diagnosed with lead poisoning in 1992 at the age of 9 years old. And I think of the medical examiners’ report that he made at the time of his (Demetrius’) death which was of many illnesses. But I want to point out the urgency of ridding us and this city of lead poisoning that effects the children who reside in this city.

     “The medical examiner stated that my son Demetrius when he passed at the age of 24 years old, his liver was of the condition of a man of eighty years old who drank wine for fifty years. My son was a juvenile diabetic diagnosed when he was 12 years old. He never drank or smoked. He watched his diet from the age of 12 years old.  So that is the urgency that we don’t know how many illnesses our children are affected by. So, I urge the City Council to look at remedies and ways, as my other CLASH members of the organization have stated, –the mobile labs and opening up the clinics on the Near West Side at McCafferty on the East Side at John Glenn on St. Clair. To look at remedies to rid our city of lead poisoning that effects our children.”

Editor’s Note: Cleveland City Council meets on Monday nights at 7 p.m. Those wishing to speak must fill out a registration form in advance. Registration forms are available on the City Council website at www.clevelandcitycouncil.org or at the City Council office on the second floor of Cleveland City Council. Registrations can be submitted between Wednesday at noon and Monday at 2 p.m. prior to the meeting.  Registration forms can be sent in by mail to Cleveland City Council, Room 220, 601 Lakeside Avenue, NE, Cleveland, Ohio 44114; by email to publiccomment@clevelandcitycouncil.org; or by website at: www.clevelancitycouncil.org.

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