Door To Door: Seen But Not Heard At Cleveland City Council

Cleveland City Council members observe a moment of silence at a 2018 meeting.
Cleveland City Council members observe a moment of silence at a 2018 meeting. For the public in attendance, the whole meeting is a moment of silence. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Analysis

From 1968 to 1977, WVIZ offered Northeast Ohioans a free ticket to the hottest show in town: Cleveland City Council’s Monday night meetings. Channel 25 broadcast council’s gatherings in full, along with color commentary from local news legend Hugh Danaceau.

The citizen reporting team at Cleveland Documenters carries that torch today, and thank goodness. Because to the layperson, council’s ways seem so arcane that city business may as well be intoned in Latin.

You’re welcome to watch the proceedings, no matter how inaccessible they may seem. But if you have something to say to your elected officials – well, bite your tongue. There’s no public comment at Cleveland City Council’s regular meetings.

At least not yet. A resident-led campaign called Clevelanders for Public Comment has now rustled up support from seven council members. They’re pushing legislation to give the people a speaking role in council’s Monday night parliamentary drama.

Without space in the agenda for the public, “it’s a lot easier for existing leadership to sort of drive the conclusions. It’s less messy,” according to Nora Kelley, one of the comment campaign’s leaders. “But democracy’s kind of a messy thing.”

Their legislation seems tailored to the mess-resistant on council. Commenters are limited to three minutes. The comment period lasts until everyone is done, or until 30 minutes are up, whichever comes first. And commenters must fill out a form before the meeting to get on the list.

Council members already field phone calls, emails and texts from constituents alerting them to quality-of- life complaints big and small. But to Nora Kelley, that’s just not the same as having residents address the entire council – and entering their words into the public record.

“I think if I was a legislator making public policy decisions in the city, and I’m making decisions across all 17 wards, I’d want to have a pulse from folks outside my ward, as well,” she told me.

In late January, Nora Kelley and other activists across those 17 wards sent a letter to Council President Kevin Kelley – no relation to Nora – urging him to allow for public comment.

The council president responded last week, just as he officially turned the ignition switch on his mayoral bid. Kevin Kelley wrote that he would refer the idea to council’s “research policy cluster,” which would make a recommendation to the operations and rules committees.

“I’m very open to it,” Kevin Kelley told me last week. “It’s not something that’s going to dramatically impact operations. I just want to make sure we do it the right way.”

Technically speaking, public comment is already allowed at committee meetings, where the true legislative jawing takes place. But in practice, as far as I can recall, that rarely happens. Committees meet during the workday, and commenters must request time from the committee chair.

Clevelanders for Public Comment has straightforward principle on its side: City Council conducts the people’s business, and it ought to hear from the people at its public meetings.

It’s also deft politics in this municipal election year.

The campaign offers an ideologically neutral issue on which to challenge candidates and council’s leaders. Whether or not everyone in the coalition agrees on a mayoral candidate, or police funding, or residential tax abatements, they can at least build a big tent on the common ground of public comment.

And does any council or mayoral hopeful really want to be branded as the candidate who told voters – in an election year, no less – to sit down and shut their traps?

I’ll admit that I have skin in this game: Public comment is great for reporters. Looking for someone with a strong opinion on the legislation you’re covering, maybe equipped with a compelling anecdote? Well, here they are, right in front of you! No phone calls or door knocks needed.

Clevelanders for Public Comment and their allies say their proposal will rejuvenate “small-d” democracy and maybe even help resuscitate the city’s voter turnout.

“While public comment is not a cure-all, it will contribute to a culture of citizen involvement and engagement, and it will help to build trust between elected leaders and residents,” Ward 15 Councilwoman Jenny Spencer said at yesterday’s news conference.

Public comment alone won’t reconnect the many people who have fallen away from local democracy in Cleveland. It will take work to include those who don’t typically have the time or money to drive downtown on a Monday night. And they’ll need to know that what they say matters to the council members who hear them.

Still, it’s a simple way to take the first step.

“Cleveland is not a resource-rich city,” Nora Kelley said. “But this is one of those things that City Council could do that residents care deeply about that doesn’t cost anything.”

All it costs is some extra time at meetings. That’s a price worth paying.

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