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Momentum, support grows for bringing public comment back to Cleveland City Council meetings

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Posted at 5:57 PM, Apr 12, 2021

CLEVELAND — A groundswell of support continues to grow for introducing legislation that would institute a public comment period at Cleveland City Council meetings and committee hearings. A total of seven city council members have publicly supported a public comment ordinance drafted by Clevelanders for Public Comment, a grassroots organization that coalesced around concerns of low voter turnout in the 2020 general election.

On the steps of City Hall Monday afternoon while dodging rain showers, members of Clevelanders for Public Comment detailed the proposed ordinance that would codify public comment into city ordinances. Since the city adopted a council-style of governance in 1932, a period of public comment during council meetings has been notably missing from the city's law books. Attorney Jessica Trivisonno researched the practices and policies of other Ohio cities, including Akron, Cincinnati and Columbus, and determined Cleveland's lack of public comment period is an outlier.

"I wasn't surprised that Cleveland was an outlier just knowing how most other communities work and function. But I am disappointed that Cleveland is an outlier and I think it is an issue that should be immediately addressed," Trivisonno said. "I think it's incredibly absurd that we have not had public comment in almost a century. I don't think there's a reason to delay it even a day further."

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Trivisonno used her research to draft a proposed ordinance, which would set out a procedure for public comment periods at full council meetings and committee hearings. Under the proposed ordinance, a period of 30 minutes would be set aside for public comment and those who wished to comment would have to sign up in advance. Members of the public would have three minutes to discuss any agenda items or subjects that concern legislative, administrative or public affair-related matters of the city.

The ordinance also allows for the public comment period to be extended in order to accommodate more speakers.

The drive behind instituting a public comment period, which has shown substantial momentum in recent weeks, was born out of the results of the 2020 election, officials said, which found overall voter turnout was barely above 50% and also declined compared to the 2016 election. Organizers believe the low voter turnout is tied to a lack of civic engagement at City Hall.

"Touchpoints in local government matter. While public comment is not a cure-all, it will contribute to a culture of citizen involvement and engagement," said Councilwoman Jenny Spencer (Ward 15). "Public comment also makes clear our commitment to inviting residents into the process of building a stronger and more equitable city."

Council members Kerry McCormack (Ward 3), Basheer Jones (Ward 7), Jasmin Santana (Ward 14), Brian Kazy (Ward 16) and Michael Polensek (Ward 8) have publicly supported a public comment period and attended Monday's announcement.

Polensek, the so-called Dean of City Council, said public comment has occurred at council meetings in the past but there is no easy to understand procedure for members of the public to sign up. Additionally, public comment is only currently possible through a council rule -- instead of a city ordinance. Council rules are routinely changed.

"I think what has become very clear is that people -- the average citizen -- really didn't know how to do that. What was the mechanism to be able to come in and comment? Codifying it makes it very clear: 'This is how you go about doing it,'" Polensek said. "You want to come in and let your voice be heard on a specific subject, specific ordinance or issue? Be our guest. That is what democracy is all about."

Polensek said public comment and civic engagement are vitally important, especially considering that he got his start in civic engagement prior to first being elected in 1978 by first attending council meetings.

"I was a neighborhood activist before I became a councilman. I would come to council meetings. I was involved in civic associations. That's the way it was drilled into me by my late mother," Polensek said. "This is your neighborhood, be involved. To me, that's what being a citizen of Cleveland is all about."

Officials said the ordinance could be introduced as early as next Monday.