Citizen 'Documenters' Shine A Light On Public Meetings In Cleveland
A network of ordinary Northeast Ohio citizens are sitting in on local government meetings, taking extensive notes or live tweeting what officials say and do. They’re called Documenters, and all the information they gather is available to the public at documenters.org.
It’s part of a one-year pilot program funded by the Cleveland Foundation and the Visible Voice Charitable Fund of the Cleveland Foundation and run by Neighborhood Connections, a nonprofit organization focused on community-building.
When the Cleveland City Council convened on Jan. 6, 2021, part of the meeting was dedicated to responding to Gov. Mike DeWine signing the controversial “stand your ground” bill into law. Councilman Joseph Jones blasted the law and said it will perpetuate more crime.
“These laws are associated with the increase in homicides and injuries across different demographic neighborhoods while disproportionately impacting communities of color,” Jones said.
Shaker Heights resident Teela Patterson watched the meeting online and tweeted what Jones said. In fact, Patterson live-tweeted everything that happened at that meeting, along with data and facts about “stand your ground” laws.
“That was an interesting topic for me because that directly affects me. I had no idea that that would have been the subject matter, but I'm glad I was able to be there to cover it,” Patterson said.
In the last six months, more than 150 people like Patterson have signed up to be Documenters in Cleveland. It pays $16 dollars an hour and, beyond learning how to cover public meetings, they’re getting access to training on topics like how to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
“I've been telling myself for years, I should really go to city council meetings,” Patterson said, “So when this opportunity came up and it's like, ‘OK, I can attend the meeting, be involved and improve my writing, be civically engaged.’”
The Documenters program was created by Chicago-based non-profit journalism lab City Bureau, on the principle that “accountability is a necessary ingredient for local democracy.” The Cleveland Documenters program allows Neighborhood Connections to tap into the “grassroots energy that’s been growing in Cleveland for the last decade,” said Lila Mills, communications manager for Neighborhood Connections.
“We're going to get a more engaged and more dynamic civic life in our community, if people have a better relationship with government,” Mills said. “And by better, I mean they understand what government is supposed to do.”
With newsrooms in cities across the country, including Northeast Ohio, shrinking and changing, the need for more community members of holding officials accountable is greater than ever, she said.
“I really see [the Documenters] as support for traditional journalism,” Mills said. “And so, if I were still a reporter in a newsroom, I can use those documents and feel that they're trustworthy. Understand that the people who are writing them have been trained through this process and are connected to a network in which they're constantly learning.”
Lawrence Daniel Caswell, a former ideastream employee, is the field coordinator for the Cleveland Documenters – meaning he doles out assignments and edits what’s written. The Documenters have covered 70 meetings since November 2020 and the aim is to cover hundreds more in the next six months, Caswell said.
“One thing we have seen from the notes, and this is part of our relationship building with a lot of community news organizations from the start, is that we've seen some articles already from our notes, a couple of stories in the Plain Press, a Cleveland Observer story,” he said.
Neighborhood Connections has to pick and choose which of the many municipal and county meetings to cover in Northeast Ohio, Caswell said. The focus, for now, remains on the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.
“Everybody in council is up for reelection, along with other folks in the City of Cleveland. So there's more attention in a year like this on city council than there really ever is,” Caswell said. “It seems a good way to show the value of the work that we're doing.”
With only a few meetings under her belt, working as a Documenter certainly isn’t a full or part-time job for Patterson, but she said she loves the work and thinks the newly acquired skill set is only sharpening her career focus.
“It was just natural for me, in my endeavors, to sign on [as a Documenter], because it's already aligned with what I aspire to do – which is be a social activist, be a leader to be a community advocate, organize, be a public servant, give.”
Cleveland joins Chicago and Detroit in creating a network of Citizen Documenters, but there are hopes the program will expand to more cities.
And it will be interesting, Caswell said, to see how these Documenters will parlay their new skills, hopefully as a “network of leaders,” down the line, in five or 10 years.