Metropolis Council’s lack of public talking time units Cleveland aside, advocate says

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – The lack of public speaking time at city council meetings sets Cleveland apart from other cities, a lawyer seeking to change that said Monday.

Jessica Trivisonno, a West Side resident who drafted laws that would create a deadline for comments, said she relied on practices used in Akron, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Youngstown.

“I can tell you that Cleveland is an outlier,” Trivisonno said in an interview with Monday cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.

Clevelanders For Public Comment, an organization made up of residents including Trivisonno, has tabled the draft regulation for the Cleveland Council to consider.

Members of the group campaigned for their draft regulation at a press conference on Monday. They were joined by seven city council members who say they will support it – Basheer Jones, Brian Kazy, Kerry McCormack, Mike Polensek, Jasmin Santana, Charles Slife and Jenny Spencer.

In a pre-press conference interview, Trivisonno said that each of the five cities she cited is following the same practice as Cleveland of reviewing legislation through public committee meetings before sending it to the entire city council for a vote.

All also allow additional public speaking time at their public meetings, she said.

Youngstown limits each person to one opportunity to speak to the council every 30 days and prevents candidates from speaking for office.

Clevelanders For Public Comment would like the council to set a 30-minute deadline at the beginning of each council meeting to allow individuals to speak for up to three minutes at a time. If time runs out before everyone who has asked for speaking time has a chance, the Council could extend the time limit. Otherwise, those who did not speak would be preferred the following week.

This is similar to what Cuyahoga County Council does. Cincinnati kept its speaking time before the start of the meeting. Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Youngstown all allow speaking at different times during the meeting. Akron closes its council meeting with speaking time.

The Cleveland draft ordinance provides preference for residents over non-residents. Speakers are limited to once a month.

And the draft would standardize a process for speaking at committee meetings. While residents are now allowed to speak at committee meetings, the procedure for gaining access is at the discretion of the committee chairman.

Trivisonno’s research found that the rules for the other cities and for Cuyahoga County Council in general allow the public to request an opportunity to speak on any topic that affects the government.

As part of her research, Trivisonno turned to the Cleveland Council archivist, who discovered that city law contained provisions for public speaking at city council meetings from 1924 to 1932, the years when Cleveland was a city administrator.

However, no public comment was mentioned in the city record at the time, Trivisonno said.

The provision was not incorporated into charter changes approved by voters in 1931 that returned Cleveland to a strong mayoral government with proportional representation on the city council. Since then, speaking in public at city council meetings has not been allowed.

Speaking time advocates say it is anti-democratic not to allow the public to address the city council directly. They say it contributes to public apathy and lower voter turnout.

“The members of our core coalition recognize public participation as a fundamental and fundamental value,” said Michelle B. Jackson, an East Side resident, during the press conference. “The residents should be greeted with a welcome mat in the town hall, not with the doors locked.”

Spencer noted that the turnout in Cleveland in the 2020 presidential election was only 53%, four points lower than in 2016. She argued that adding the comment deadline would boost residents’ trust in the government and give the council access to a wider range of citizens become points of view.

The bill needs to be reviewed and put into proper form by city council lawyers before it can be officially introduced, Polensek said. This process shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks, he said.

Spencer and Santana plan to be the sponsors.

McCormack said in an interview that he hoped the legislation could be reviewed in committee hearings before the council paused for the summer. If not, the seven supporting members might have to push the President of the Council, Kevin Kelley.

Kelley said last week he was open to speaking time. In a recent email, he directed the council’s staff to explore other cities – much like Trivisonno.

The city council could set a speaking time simply by changing the city council’s rules for business management. Polensek said however, codifying it into a regulation would make it more difficult to discard in the future.

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