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Cleveland City Council, mayor appear at odds over possible limits to public comment

Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Mayor Justin Bibb spoke during a council meeting in 2022 about his proposed budget. Since then tensions have flared between the mayor and council over his attendance at meetings.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb does not appear to support possible changes to City Council's public comment period, which would include limiting speakers to only addressing council business.

Council's potential rule change, brought before its 17 members on Nov. 27, comes on the heels of weeks of Pro-Palestinian comments filling public comment periods asking Bibb to recant support of Israel made in a social media post and City Council to pass a resolution for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Those commenters at some points disrupted the meetings with chanting and by displaying signs, which go against council's rules.

City Council President Blaine Griffin said those incidents have caused safety concerns for some council members. Ward 1's Joe Jones last week said he was considering bringing a gun to City Hall following the events, a comment he apologized for at Monday's meeting.

But the controversy over public comment policy has been festering since at least September when councilmembers cut commenters' mics for making homophobic and anti-Semitic comments and criticizing council members by name.

The rule change will actually "broaden" public comment, by giving more people opportunities to speak on more issues rather than allow "special interest groups" to flood the session, Griffin said Thursday. Only 10 people are permitted to speak at public comment each week.

But Bibb told Ideastream Thursday that he is a "firm believer in free speech," reiterating his campaign support for public comment, which was brought to council in 2021.

"I'm a big believer in the First Amendment," Bibb told Ideastream on Thursday when asked about his stance on public comment. "I believe that democracy is messy, but it's democracy. And that's the beauty of the country that we live in."

Bibb noted that he is not "in control of City Council" or its rules. He said he is not clear on the specifics of council's proposals, but when asked if residents should be able to talk about anything, he said yes.

Bibb's attendance — or lack thereof — at Monday night meetings when public comment takes place has ruffled the feathers of some council members, including Ward 8's Mike Polensek, who represents Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood.

"This is a standing meeting of city council and no one from the administration took the time nor the respect to show up for this body when all of these members and our staffs have been here since early this morning working on pieces of legislation that they (the administration) requested," he said during a July 12 council meeting.

Ward 13's Kris Harsh brought the issue up again at the City Council's Nov. 27 caucus meeting, when he pointed to a public comment the week before where a homeless advocate asked the city why money was pending on an eviction assistance program passed by council months prior.

"We did our part months ago," Harsh said. "The speaker was trying to talk to the mayor, but once again, he was not at our meeting."

Bibb reiterated in a conversation with Ideastream on Thursday that his attendance is optional according to the city's charter.

"I have a very busy schedule. I'm a very busy mayor," he said. "I try to go to as many City Council meetings as I possibly can, and I will continue to do so."

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.