By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell
Clevelanders were given the right to address City Council at public meetings beginning this past October. A movement fronted by the grassroots organization Clevelanders For Public Comment, and supported by several Council members, led to the implementation of a public comment rule that allows for up to ten people to speak for up to three minutes each at public City Council meetings, currently held Monday evenings at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
Cleveland Documenter Jennifer Chandler, who covered the first Council meeting featuring public comment, noticed there was no immediate response from Council members to the comments, and wondered, “Does council have a plan for reflection and action on the issues that were discussed?”
The Cleveland Observer went to Council and the community to find answers.
Public comment is considered a public record. Ohio “Sunshine” Laws require retention of these records for public use; Cleveland City Council will maintain any written comments, and spoken comments via the YouTube meeting live streams, for six years.
There is no mandate or rule that requires members of Council to follow-up with public commenters.
“Listening during the public comment period and engaging with commenters is the responsibility of each individual council member,” says Ward 17 Councilperson Charles Slife. “Each week I note the names of commenters and their comments. This has helped me contact them afterwards for follow up.”
It is unclear how much reflection on public comment items will be done outside of what individual members choose to address. Council administration staff stated they were unable to answer The Observer’s questions regarding the existence of any standardization or process for tracking, reporting, or analysis of public comment or the data it will contain.
Clevelanders For Public Comment [CPC]’s Nora Kelley, says the lack of obligation on Council members to follow-up is exactly why they believe having public commenters at their committee meetings, not just the whole Council, is so important, and why they will continue advocating to close gaps that remain in the public comment rule.
“In order to best advocate for policy solutions,” she says, “we need to ensure that resident voices are heard early in the deliberation process.”
“From CPC’s perspective, the key deficiency in the council rule is the failure to address the committee sign-up process. Instead, this process remains opaque (and non-standardized) and, most concerningly, at the discretion of the chair of the particular committee. Throughout the campaign to secure public comment, council members repeatedly argued that public comment at the time of committee consideration was the most important point for residents to influence council deliberations. Inexplicably, the committee sign-up process was ignored by the rule change.”
Offering a solution for tracking and analysis could be Cleveland resident Angelo Trivisonno, who uses his technology skills to build interactive maps and databases of information, in particular the @CleBillBot page on Twitter that automatically tweets out legislation as it is uploaded to City and County websites.
Trivisonno has created a library of all public comments provided at City Council meetings since the rule’s inception on October 4th. “The Public Comment database includes the name, text, and video of each commenter at City Council meetings,” he explains. “It allows community members to browse, consider, and connect together the subjects and themes of previous comments, potentially in novel and non-obvious ways to spark change within systems.”
So, what else can the public do, maybe the not-so-tech-savvy, to ensure public comment is a useful tool for communicating concerns between legislators and residents?
Slife says, “I appreciate when commenters offer specific resources that members can use to learn more about the topic or to communicate important issues to residents, businesses, and other stakeholders.”
Kelley says, “[At CPC] we believe that having active and structured campaigns is critical to successfully moving council on issues — we hope the CPC campaign builds momentum for other similar campaigns. And we believe we’re seeing this happen already with efforts like Participatory Budgeting Cleveland [PB CLE] and the Guardians for Fair Work.
“The bottom line, though, is that public comment is one tool and not a silver bullet. We believe a broader set of reforms are necessary to democratize the practices of council and help more residents actively engage in democracy-building efforts.”
This article was written with information obtained from Documenters.org, a news service providing coverage of local government meetings, currently operating in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.