CLEVELAND — For the first time in nearly a century, public comment will be recognized and permitted at full Cleveland City Council meetings thanks to the passage of a rule change Wednesday afternoon. Spearheaded by the grassroots organization, Clevelanders for Public Comment, the rule change marks the first time public comment will be permitted at full council meetings since the city moved to a mayor-council form of government in 1932. However, because of an amendment introduced Wednesday, Council must move to adopt the procedures for public comment set forth by the clerk before public comment periods officially return to full Council meetings.
An amendment to the rule change that would require any future changes to the public comment period to first be approved by Council, which supporters argued was essential to ensuring it couldn't be easily be changed, was also introduced at Wednesday's meeting. The amendment, which requires council to vote on the procedures created by the clerk, could be voted on when council convenes on Sept. 20.
Clevelanders for Public Comment had initially proposed to bring back public comment by way of an ordinance that Council would approve. However, Council leadership, including Council President Kevin Kelley, opted to proceed with the rule change instead.
Public comment is recognized and permitted by the legislative bodies of other major cities in and outside of Ohio, including Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
"It is incredibly frustrating to know that public comment is something we’ve had to make progress on over the past century," said Jessica Trivisonno, one of the leaders of Clevelanders for Public Comment and chief architect of the group's proposed ordinance. "It has been this huge uphill battle and we’re still just trying to fight for something marginally better than what is being proposed. It’s really frustrating."
At Council's full meeting Tuesday afternoon, Councilman Kerry McCormack (Ward 3) introduced the amendment that would require any changes to the new rule to first be approved by Council. Councilman Mike Polensek (Ward 8) seconded.
Trivisonno and other members of Clevelanders for Public Comment opened Wednesday's Committee of the Whole meeting, the first in-person committee meeting since the pandemic began, by imploring council members to recognize the value and importance of an engaged citizenry.
"This is a victory practically and symbolically. We want to remind Clevelanders that the government works for them and it does, in fact, work," said David Brock, a member of Clevelanders for Public Comment. "We’re a democratic republic. This goes back to colonial times when they had town hall meetings and people got to speak. We should certainly have that right in Cleveland."
Under the rule change, public comment periods will be limited to 30 minutes and shall be the council's fifth item in the order of business. Those wishing to speak are required to register beforehand. Registration opens at noon on the Wednesday before a Monday council meeting and the first 10 to register will be allowed to speak.