Cleveland City Council Looks At Rule Change To Allow Public Comment

Councilman Mike Polensek reviews papers at his desk during a 2017 Cleveland City Council meeting
Councilman Mike Polensek reviews papers at his desk during a Cleveland City Council meeting in 2017. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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Cleveland City Council members on Monday said they welcomed the idea of hearing public comment at regular meetings, although they stopped short of voting on a specific proposal.

At a committee hearing, council staff presented a draft summary of a rule change allowing for 30 minutes of comment at weekly meetings. The proposal would give Cleveland residents or city business owners two to three minutes each to comment on council ordinances or resolutions.

Council President Kevin Kelley asked council’s operations committee, chaired by Councilman Anthony Hairston, to figure out how to make a public comment session work in practice. Council would then vote on a rule change allowing it.

Hairston formerly served on Cuyahoga County Council, which does allow public comment.

“One hundred percent I support this rule change,” Hairston said. “And I’ve sat through hours and hours and hours of public comment on various topics when I served on that body prior to coming to Cleveland City Council. So I understand how this works.”

A resident-led group began pushing council leadership on the issue earlier this year. Clevelanders for Public Comment drafted potential legislation, garnering support from more than half of council’s 17 members.

“Who can be against trying to have more public input and public comment?” Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin said. He added that he didn’t want sessions to be dominated by a “small, vocal minority” at the expense of those without the wherewithal to add their voices at meetings.

Unlike Clevelanders for Public Comment’s suggested legislation, council’s own draft rule would not address public comment at committee meetings, where council business receives most of its discussion. Comment is already allowed at committees at the discretion of the chairperson, though the public comment campaign had advocated for a more structured process.

Under the draft rule changes, speakers would need to sign up to talk at council meetings. An online and paper form would ask for speakers’ names, addresses and the ordinance or resolution they planned to discuss. Speakers also would have to disclose whether they represented an organization or were paid to speak.

Ward 15 Councilwoman Jenny Spencer asked why the rule change proposal appeared to limit comment to agenda items, rather than allowing broader discussion.

“I think that some folks just want to be heard on – I’m thinking [of] some of my constituents who may have a quality-of-life concern,” Spencer said. “That, yes, they’ve told me, yes they’ve called 311, yes they’ve called the mayor’s action line, and they just want to say it again.”

Council policy analysts John James and Anne Tillie said there is precedent in other cities for limiting comment to agenda items and that the provision would help maintain the flow of meetings.

“My preference was that it had something to do with what’s considered by council, just to keep to the agenda and keep an orderly flow of the meeting,” Kelley said.

Council is considering the change during a year of political turnover at Cleveland City Hall. Mayor Frank Jackson is not seeking a fifth term and numerous candidates have entered the race for his office. Among them are two sitting council members, Kelley and Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones.

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