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Cleveland City Council may clear chambers, prohibit attendance after disruptions, new policy says

Rebecca Maurer, who represents Cleveland's Ward 12, apologizes to pro-Palestinian protesters for not speaking up about a cease-fire in City Council chambers sooner.
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
Rebecca Maurer, who represents Cleveland's Ward 12, was the first council member to speak about the Israel-Hamas War during a council meeting. She expressed her support for a cease-fire and said that while there was both a simple and complex way to look at the conflict she was focusing on the "human" perspective on the war.

After 12 weeks of protests in Monday night meetings, Cleveland City Council issued new policies Monday that it said are designed to handle public meeting disruptions.

The six-step protocol, drafted by the public safety committee with guidance of the city's law department and implemented Jan. 29, ultimately allows City Council to recess, clear the meeting and not permit the public to return to chambers for the remainder of the meeting.

Last week's meeting was adjourned early after council voted on legislation over loud chanting from protesters calling for a resolution supporting a cease-fire in Gaza.

The protocols begin with an overview of the rules, then a warning from the presiding officer, usually the council president, using a gavel and a verbal warning before he or she calls for a recess. Council members will then leave to go to the committee room, where no public business will be discussed, while chambers are cleared.

"As there is no longer public business occurring in the Council Chambers, there is no longer a right to be present in the Council Chambers," the policy states.

After chambers are cleared, council members and members of the media may return. In-person attendance will be prohibited, however, the remainder of the meeting will be open to the public electronically online or on television.

"Whether real or perceived, any time people come into council, they should expect an orderly meeting that has decorum," Griffin told Ideastream at Monday's meeting. "We want to make sure that the public, as well as the protesters, as well as the council and the staff, have safety protocols in place in case things get out of control. Last week, really was alarming to a lot of people on all sides of the spectrum, and we felt that we needed to put something in place in order to make sure that we gave clear protocols on how we would handle a situation if it arises again."

Blaine Griffin sits in the council president's chair as people hold up white paper signs in the foreground.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin presides over a council meeting on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, as protesters in the gallery hold up white paper signs.

This comes after months of Palestinian supporters showing up in droves to demand council pass a cease-fire resolution during public comment period. Griffin said protesters have sometimes violated council rules by bringing and displaying signs, which are banned in council chambers, and speaking or chanting over city council members throughout the meetings. At least one person has been removed from chambers by Cleveland police.

Those in attendance at Monday's meeting, like Palestinian Shereen Naser, weren't happy with the new policy.

"I think the response to people coming in, displaying their grief, trying to instill more rules is just the way the system works, and it's got to stop," Naser told Ideastream.

Naser is part of the Cleveland Palestinian Advocacy Community, a coalition of local social justice organizations advocating for the recognition and rights of the Palestinian people. Her family is from Bir Zeit in the occupied West Bank, where she said her father is currently.

"I believe that is a way that City Council is attempting to silence us and push us away, in an attempt to marginalize us further, than what they've already done for the past 11 weeks," said Cleveland activist Chance Emad of the Palestinian Youth Movement.

Though some members of the public say they’re not pleased with the new procedure, Jonathan Entin, a law professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University, said he doesn’t see immediate issues with the new meeting protocol — as long as it’s implemented consistently.

"The rationale for allowing remote access only once we get to the to the end of this, these six steps would be analogous to the to the rationale for not having people physically present at meetings during COVID," he said.

Council member speaks up in favor of resolution

An hour before the meeting, Griffin released a statement reiterating council's decision to not pass a resolution on Gaza.

"After talking with many of my colleagues, Cleveland City Council does not feel we are in a position to issue a fair and unbiased ceasefire resolution," he said in a written statement. "I, as Council President, am asking representatives from the communities closest to the conflict to convene and discuss how their communities can be acknowledged and seen. I've previously met with several leaders in both affected communities, and I’ve asked them to consider talking with each other about a mutually agreeable path forward in Cleveland."

But just before Monday night's meeting adjourned, Ward 12 Councilmember Rebecca Maurer, the only Jewish member of City Council and one of two members who have issued written statements calling for a cease-fire, turned around to apologize to the crowd for "taking so long" to speak up in fear of "alienating [her] colleagues."

"Despite weeks of trying, it is clear to me at this point this body will not pass a full cease-fire resolution or even give one the dignity of a vote if it's introduced," Maurer said. "Now what I'm left with and what I'll use is my voice."

Maurer called Israel President Benjamin Netanyahu's actions, including ground and air strikes that have killed more than 25,000 Palestinians according to the Associated Press, as "horrific."

A pro-Palestinian protester holds a sign reading "Ceasefire now. Free Palestine. Stop the genocide. End occupation" in the gallery of Cleveland City Council.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Pro-Palestinian protesters sit in the gallery at a Cleveland City Council meeting on Jan. 22, 2024.

Maurer's comments came months after she released a written statement calling for a cease-fire. She's the first council member to openly address the topic at a council meeting. Her comments prompted applause and a standing ovation from the dozens of people in the chambers.

"In my public comment, I called for people to be brave," Naser said. "I appreciate Rebecca Maurer for her bravery. That's the kind of leadership Cleveland needs. And that's certainly the kind of leadership this movement would rally behind."

One man, who had spoken during the public comment period in favor of Israel and condemned Hamas during the public comment period, shouted "Liar!" after Maurer mentioned the International Court of Justice's ruling issued last week that it's "plausible" that Israel committed acts of genocide. Griffin called for order with his gavel and warned the man that Maurer had the floor.

Despite stray shouts and sparse chanting throughout the meeting, the new protocol was not implemented and business proceeded as usual.

The next City Council meeting is Feb. 5 at Cleveland City Hall.

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