#CLEDocsAnswers: How many people in each ward use the city’s exterior paint program?

This week’s #CLEDocsAnswers is about Cleveland’s Exterior Paint Program, which gives eligible residents the supplies needed to paint their homes. The deadline to apply for the program is April 30. Residents can find the application here. Documenter Robert Rotatori attended a meeting about the program and left with a question. He asked, “How many individuals in each ward are using the paint program?” Here’s what we know!

Click or tap this tweet to see the whole #CLEDocsAnswers thread about the paint program.

The Department of Community Development does not have a list of the number of people in each ward who are using the program or used it in 2020. The department does have a list of applications received from each ward in 2020, and it has an overall breakdown of people who used the program last year. During a Cleveland City Council meeting, council members referenced a document about the program provided by Community Development. We got the document from Joan Mazzolini, who handles communications for council.

The document has the number of 2020 applicants from each ward and the funding needed to support them. Nancy Kelsey-Carroll, assistant director of communication for the city, confirmed that the chart lists 2020 applications received, despite the middle column being titled “approved.”

It also shows how many people completed the paint program in 2020. Of the 785 approved applicants, 297 finished painting their homes. Residents who received vouchers in 2020 are still eligible to finish painting.

There were still spots available in the program as of April 6, according to Neighborhood Services Commissioner Louise Jackson.

Want to learn more about the city’s exterior paint program? Check out Robert’s notes for details about the conversation! Follow us on Twitter for more #CLEDocsAnswers, and check out all notes and live-tweet threads on our website.

#CLEDocsAnswers: Why are the budget numbers reported as unaudited?

This marks the first installment of Cleveland Documenters’ #CLEDocsAnswers series. After attending and documenting Cleveland and Cuyahoga County meetings, Documenters share their follow-up questions. #CLEDocsAnswers is Cleveland Documenters’ effort to answer those questions.

Click or tap this tweet to see the rest of our #CLEDocsAnswers thread about unaudited budget numbers.

Documenter Seanna Jackson (@seandene on Twitter) was one of many #CLEDocumenters who attended Cleveland City Council’s budget hearings in February. In addition to her notes, Seanna had some excellent follow-up questions, two of which we got answers to. She asked, “Why are the budget numbers reported as unaudited? Why are audits not performed before a budget?”

Seanna’s question was about the unaudited 2020 budget numbers seen in the 2021 Mayor’s Estimate, the city’s proposed budget.

Audits won’t be completed until this summer, according to Gregory Cordek, manager of the Office of Budget and Management. He said “unaudited” doesn’t translate to “inaccurate.” Cordek said that people can read the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) later in the year to see audited 2020 budget numbers.

The city has issued the last seven audit reports in the summer. You can access them on the city website, and you can read Seanna’s full notes on the Feb. 22 budget hearing here.

Follow us on Twitter for more #CLEDocsAnswers. In the meantime, you can find all notes and live-tweet threads about local government meetings on our website.

City Council Agenda Guide

Ever read a Cleveland City Council agenda and ask yourself, “What’s that mean?” Check out our new City Council Agenda Guide! The guide is an annotated agenda.

The guide defines items that commonly appear on City Council agendas. It also reads between the lines and details procedures like “suspension of the rules” or what it means when council takes a vote on an “emergency” ordinance or resolution. We studied up using the City Charter and council rules to create this guide. Click on the yellow notes to learn what each term means.

There’s plenty more to learn from ALL the reporting Cleveland Documenters have done. Check it out!

Have any questions or comments? Want something added to the guide? Contact our Civic Reporter @Doug_Pitorak at DougBP@neighborhoodgrants.org.

Public Comment at Cleveland City Council — Explained

Cleveland Documenters pays and trains people to cover public meetings where government officials discuss important issues and decide how to spend taxpayer money. Cleveland City Council passes laws (called ordinances). Its members are elected by citizens to represent them. Historically, City Council hasn’t provided residents a regular and formal space to comment on those decisions outside of committee meetings (and even that opportunity hinges on an invitation from a committee leader).

What is public comment?

Public comment is a way for residents to address government bodies or elected officials during meetings where they consider and vote on legislation. A public comment or participation period is often a forum for residents to share information or opinion on community matters.

What is the state of public comment at Cleveland City Council?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • 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 spending money
  • City Council also holds committee meetings, where members meet to 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 on important issues

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. Conversation about the lack of public comment has grown.

Public comment at committee meetings

At committee meetings, council has a process for residents to speak. They must contact the council member who chairs or leads the committee and ask to speak. The chairperson ultimately decides whether to invite someone to speak.

Documenters’ notes indicate a lack of public comment

The work of the Documenters community indicates an overall lack of public comment at City Council meetings. Between Nov. 18, 2020, and March 12, 2021, Documenters attended 52 City Council meetings, including regular and committee gatherings. Rarely, if ever, has a member of the public not employed by the city — or an organization in or aiming to contract with the city — commented during those proceedings.

What does the law say?

Ohio law and Cleveland’s city charter mandate that government meetings be held publicly. But what does the law say about public comment at those meetings?

  • Ohio law neither requires nor bans public comment
  • Cleveland’s city charter neither requires nor bans public comment
  • The city charter gives council the authority to make its own rules

There is a bit of historical precedent for allowing public comment at Cleveland City Council meetings. The recently formed advocacy group Clevelanders for City Council Reform shared with Cleveland Documenters some information it gleaned from council’s city archivist, Chuck Mocsiran:

Here is a section of the 1924 city charter mandating public comment:

Mocsiran shared that, despite that mandate, he could not find any record of resident comments made to council during that time.

How do other regional legislative bodies handle public comment?

Clevelanders for City Council Reform is one group that recently started to advocate 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 (CDCs). Her research for the ordinance showed that public comment is either mandated or regularly permitted in the legislative councils serving:

Details such as when the public comment period occurs in a council meeting, how long people are permitted to speak, and how many people can speak per meeting varies.

People wishing to address Cuyahoga County Council can fill out a specific public comment form. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the process shifted to submitting public comments via email. To address Columbus City Council, people can submit speaker slips online. And to address Akron City Council, people can complete a public comment form. During the pandemic, people can call and leave a voicemail no more than three minutes long.

What else did we learn?

Cleveland Documenters asked Clerk of Council Pat Britt, Chief of Communications Joan Mazzolini, and — via survey — all 17 council members (three of whom have responded since receiving the survey on March 2) about the process for public comment requests. The consensus answer was “contact the committee chairperson.”

What was clear was that 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.

To request permission to speak, a resident would need to:

1. Figure out which committee they want to address.

3. Identify the chair of that committee.

4. Figure out when the committee will meet. Here’s council’s calendar.

3. Contact the chair and ask to speak at a meeting.

There is a general contact form on the web site for residents to submit comments and questions. Each council member’s webpage has contact information for them or their assistants, as well as the submission form on the main contact page.

Does City Council track people’s requests to make public comment?

Britt told Cleveland Documenters that there are no records of anyone asking to speak at City Council regular meetings because public comment is not a part of those agendas. Regarding committee meetings, Britt said people could watch videos of the meetings to see if anyone commented. In lieu of watching every video, we rely on the Documenters coverage we referenced earlier. It is not a perfect account, but it is what we know right now.

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

2. Council changes its own rules to require a public comment period

The city charter empowers City Council to make its own rules. The rules already permit residents to be heard.

To make a public comment period routine, council would have to change its rules, which it has full power to do.

Mazzolini said that council members make efforts 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, more recently started to use an online form to gather questions and comments in advance of Health & Human Services Committee meetings. Still, the chairperson — in that case McCormack — decides which comments and questions to bring to the meeting.

City Council survey: Thoughts on public comment

Cleveland Documenters sent a short survey to all 17 council members on March 2. Three have responded: Council Members Blaine Griffin, Ward 6; Basheer Jones, Ward 7; and Mike Polensek, Ward 8. (We’ll add any new responses if they roll in.) Here are the highlights of their responses:

What are the options for public comment at regular and committee meetings?

Each respondee pointed to committee meetings as a potential space for public comment. Polensek added that public comment in regular meetings could occur via invitation by Council President Kevin Kelley, Ward 13. He said a citizen can speak at a committee meeting if requested by the chair of the committee.

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; 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 exact scenario play out, 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.”

If you are in favor of a public comment period at City Council meetings, do you think it should be established by a council rule change or a city ordinance?

All three council members said they prefer a council rule change.

If you have a plan to establish a public comment period at City Council meetings, please share what process you plan to follow.

Polensek said he envisions a public comment period before the regular council meeting. Griffin said he’d 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.” Journalist Mark Oprea reported for Cleveland Magazine in March 2020 that Jones envisioned about 10 time slots for people to talk for two to three minutes each. Oprea reported that Jones’ plan would feature a “ban on cursing or offensive comments and allow comment only on pertinent issues.”

Created by Doug Breehl-Pitorak and the Cleveland Documenters team.

Comments or questions? Email DougBP@neighborhoodgrants.org.

ideastream: Citizen ‘Documenters’ Shine A Light On Public Meetings In Cleveland

ideastream did great story on our Cleveland Documenters work . Click here to listen.

How to: Documenters Community of Practice

We’re excited to launch Documenters Community of Practice, a monthly gathering for mutual support and action. Anyone can learn to host parts of the monthly Documenters Community of Practice held the 4th Thursday of the month.

There are 5 Roles on the team:

  • Welcome
  • Tech Tips
  • New & Good
  • Introduce Breakout Sessions/Close Breakout Sessions and
  • Check-out

Here’s how the evening flows:


Thank you for joining us today to learn and share about documenting public meetings and growing a pool of communal public knowlegde. My name is _______and I’m a member of the Neighbor Up Network where our mission is “To ignite the power of everyday people to create, together, an extraordinary world right where they live.”

Showing up here today means you are now a member of the Neighbor Up Network. If you’d like to be added to our email and text list please enter your contact info into the chat box.

Community of Practice is a learning exchange we create TOGETHER for anyone interested in Documenters. We invite you to please take and use these practices. We’ll go until about 7:30 today; we hope you can stay the whole time, but know it’s ok to step out whenever you need to.

We only ask that you bring your best self, come prepared to both learn AND teach, and actively participate in creating and maintaining a positive learning environment. And of course, you’re welcome to bring food and drink with you!

Tech Tips

(First ask, “Who here is new to Zoom?” and if no one is, we can skip the ones below this paragraph, and just share these:)

1) invite everyone to open and use the Chat Box – ask them to “Please open it now; so many gifts show up there.”

2) Alert folks that “everything here is by invitation so as respect for you, we won’t unmute you or turn on your video – but we hope you’ll stay unmuted unless there is background noise,

3) if anyone is on their phone we suggest putting it on “Do Not Disturb” so they don’t get kicked off Zoom by an incoming call, and

4) give a phone number in case someone runs into a tech problem.

Who’s staffing the chat box today? Wave hi! (name them – then the Main Host will thank the rest of the team for today)
And now for some quick tips on using Zoom so that we can flow a little more easily. If you are a Zoom expert already, we thank you for your patience.

Muting: We invite you to keep your mic unmuted unless you have a lot of background noise.
Note: we will not unmute you or ask you to share your video. If you are having difficulty, send a note in chat.

Chat Function: To maximize your participation please open the chat function by maximizing Zoom on your screen, hovering over and clicking the “chat” button on the bottom of your screen. You should then see a chat bar on the side of your screen. If you are on your phone, you can tap in the bottom right corner of your screen to get the chat function.

Who’s staffing the chat box today? Wave hi! (name them)

If the screen is freezing or the sound is cutting out, consider stopping your video. You can still see us and hear us, and we can hear you when you’re not muted. If you are connecting from your phone any call or text coming in will mute this gathering on your end. If you’d like to avoid that, we suggest you set your phone to Do Not Disturb.

Check In: New & Good

One of our PRACTICES, or fundamental ways we do this work, is to start every gathering with a check in.

This practice is an opportunity for everyone to briefly meet others, and to put their voice into this space. Focusing on what’s new and good also helps us get primed and energized for this gathering. 

Life is full of…

  • difficulties and struggles 
  • also filled with beauty, generosity, mini successes and large accomplishments. 

Let’s go around, and let us know your Name, Neighborhood or the Community you’re connected to, and something new and good in your life.

(We then go into our Group Learning when we have a 20-minute group learning conversation.)

Breakout Conversations Intro

Introduce Breakout Session choices (First, take time to generate new topics for the breakouts. Second, read the choices from the shared document, ask folks to vote with their screens and enter their room choice in the chat)

Brief Meditation or Music while we organize the breakout rooms.

After Break Out Sessions
What is an “ah-ha” or action step that came from being in your breakout? OR what other takeaway from your breakout that you want to share with the main room? Please add it here in the chat.

Check Out

What is a gift are you taking from today?
What do you want to remember?
How are you feeling now compared to when you first arrived here today?

(invite to Hang Out Parking Lot)

What happens when I submit my document?

1. SUBMISSION: Lawrence is the first contact for all Documenters. When you submit your documentation, you will receive an automated email from Lawrence letting you know your document has been received. 

2. REVIEW: Rachel, Doug and Lila edit the document. If there are questions, Lawrence reaches out to you for more information. 

3. COPYEDIT: Once the initial edit is complete and any questions have been answered, Mary Ellen will copy edit the document. Once Mary Ellen has finished, she will let Lawrence know. 

4. PUBLIC: Lawrence will publish the document on Documenters.org. (We expect to be able to complete this process within 24-48 hours of notes being submitted.) 

6. FEEDBACK: Lawrence sends an email to you with any feedback.

  • Also note: Tweet threads are embedded on Documenters.org, too.

Find out more about Cleveland Documenters.