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).
Updated May 25: Clevelanders for Public Comment sent Ward 10 Council Member Anthony Hairston a version of council rules on May 11 that shows what the rules could look like if they established the advocacy group’s vision for a regular public comment period at City Council meetings. You can view the document here.
Jessica Trivisonno, a Cleveland resident who drafted that version of council rules, said everything underlined in the document is proposed new language that would establish public comment. She said everything that is highlighted in yellow conflicts with what council proposed on May 10 (see more on that below). Trivisonno added that she met with Hairston, who chairs the Operations Committee, on May 20. She said it was a positive meeting, but there was nothing substantive to report.
Updated May 11: Council President Kevin Kelley, Ward 13, shared a draft of potential changes to council rules that would allow for a 30-minute public comment period. City Council’s Rules Committee and Operations Committee discussed implementing a regular public comment period at full City Council meetings at a joint meeting May 10 but did not vote on the rules.
The change would allow citizens to make statements after roll call, when council members must be present, and before council begins to consider legislation. Each participant would have 2-3 minutes to speak.
Council staff researched how other cities handle public comment. Joan Mazzolini, chief of communications for council, shared that research with Cleveland Documenters. She also shared a draft of council’s public comment rules, which came weeks after the advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Comment proposed a city ordinance, or law, that would mandate public comment at City Council meetings.
Council’s proposed rule change includes the following requirements:
- Speakers must live in the city or own a business there.
- They must complete an online form or sign-up sheet by 2 p.m. on Monday (The proposed rule change assumes council meetings return to their pre-pandemic time of Monday at 7 p.m. Currently, council meets at 2:30 p.m on Monday).
- Speakers must specify what ordinance or resolution they wish to talk about, meaning their comment must be about an agenda item.
Clevelanders for Public Comment’s proposed ordinance envisions a more broadly accessible public comment period, allowing “members of the public” to speak about agenda items and “subjects that concern the legislative, administrative, or public affairs” of Cleveland.
It is unclear whether any of the nine council members who endorsed the ordinance will move forward with proposing legislation or accept the rules change proposed by Kelley.
In the joint committees meeting, Kelley asked, “Is there anybody who’s on the Rules Committee that would not support a recommendation that we add a rules portion, the sum of which has been described, to the Monday night meeting?”
No one said they would not support that. Council Member Charles Slife, Ward 17, wanted to clarify if they were discussing a rule change or an ordinance. He said he sees value in implementing public comment through an ordinance because it would spell out the process rather than rely on oral tradition, a practice he said could be the reason why many people aren’t aware they can speak at committee meetings.
Kelley said they’re discussing a rule change.
“There’s clearly multiple paths to the top of this mountain,” Slife said in response. “I think that both are worthy of discussion in their own right.”
A council rule change is more flexible; council can vote to suspend its rules and remove public comment from any meeting. Repealing an ordinance requires more steps and would provide increased notice to the public.
The Rules and Operations committees did not hold a vote in their joint meeting. Instead, Kelley outlined the following next steps:
- The Operations Committee will meet with Clerk of Council Patricia Britt to iron out procedural details.
- They will determine what the public comment process will look like.
- Council attorneys will then draft a rule change for the entire council to vote upon.
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 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:
- Cleveland’s city charter did mandate public comment from 1924–1931
- At that time, Cleveland had a city manager and a mayor position that was mostly ceremonial
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). As of April 20, 2021, nine council members support the proposed ordinance, according to reporting by Sam Allard for Cleveland Scene.
Trivisonno’s 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. However, Basheer Jones and Polensek are two of the nine council members who support Trivisonno’s proposed ordinance.
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.