It was in a communal tent, not on a stage or at a university, that Tom L. Johnson found the ideal venue for public debate.
During the future Cleveland mayor’s campaign — up until he was elected in 1901 — he favored the spontaneity of public talks in big “canvas auditoriums” over the formal rigidity of hall discussions. For the beloved Georgist politician, the tents were true symbols of raw democracy: cheap, portable and intimate. The meetings attracted everyone from the women of Millionaire’s Row to unfavored councilmen and hecklers.
“In short, the meetings are literally taken to the people,” Johnson wrote in his 1913 autobiography, My Story. The free-for-alls were a reciprocally rewarding process.
“The greatest benefit of the tent meeting,” Johnson wrote, “the one which cannot be measured, is the educational influence on the people who compose the audience.”
Although today’s Cleveland is far removed from Johnson’s three-cent streetcar fare days, we still haven’t locked down the extent to which citizens are included directly in the law-making process, especially when it comes to addressing Cleveland City Council face-to-face. Currently, full City Council meetings have no public comment period.
If Johnson was alive and well today, he’d undeniably be in support of inserting one in all full Council meetings. Public comment period formats vary from city to city and are typically up to an hour in length, depending on turnout and how long people talk. Yet, they have a noble purpose: allowing any citizen to speak openly to their government, offering them the right to criticize or agree publicly with laws impacting them directly.
The concept works. Nationally, public comment is a key part of how federal agencies implement laws passed by Congress. For many city governments, a public comment period is also the norm. Though there has been much debate over how, and for how long, the comment period should run, New York City and Philadelphia’s councils have had one for ages. So have Columbus and Akron. And for good reason. During a January meeting in Seattle, throngs of Indian immigrants spoke up to reaffirm Seattle as a welcoming city after India’s passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. “The trend is one leaning towards an open government,” says Catherine Turcer, executive director of government watchdog Common Cause Ohio.
Here in Northeast Ohio, Cleveland’s City Council appears to be the odd man out. Both Cuyahoga County Council and the Board of Education run periodic public comment periods, to positive results. Even Akron has a council that readily welcomes constituents to talk for a whole three minutes at Monday meetings. But the last time Cleveland welcomed speakers? According to the City Council archives, the most recent consistent public comment was during the city’s brief dalliance with a city manager form of government. That ended in 1931.
But there’s hope: One Cleveland City Councilman is out to change that.
In January, Basheer Jones, of Ward 7, urged City Council to implement a public comment period into Council’s Monday night meetings. Although council members in the past few decades have tried, and failed, to make comment periods mandatory, Jones has a proposal that’s reasonable and easy to implement. He could make it happen.
Past Council resistance has stemmed from uncertainty surrounding both how to orchestrate public comment and a lack of citizen enthusiasm. But Jones says his well-attended ward meetings, which can attract up to 200 residents, show there are many Clevelanders who want a larger stake in politics. “It would be foolish not to listen to them,” he says.
“I like to quote Dr. King in these instances,” says 35-year-old Jones, a former activist and Council’s first Muslim representative. “ ‘Rioting is the language of the unheard.’ Young people especially need to express their thoughts if others are going to listen.”
Jones’ plan would open 10 or so slots for individuals or organizations to speak for two or three minutes. The rules would ban cursing or offensive comments and allow comment only on pertinent issues.
Jones says six of his colleagues are on board. But the proposal would require approval from City Council President Kevin Kelley. (Kelley declined to comment.)
Jones believes comment periods could translate into concrete action. “For my meetings, I try to implement whatever is requested,” Jones says. “Poverty, lead poisoning, structural racism [initiatives] — it all comes from public comment.”
In Turcer’s mind, an open mic before meetings has even greater implications. Inviting the public into the lawmaking process is at the heart of democracy. When people feel they don’t have a voice, she says, the results can be volatile. Recently, in Columbus, where she lives, an activist ended up shutting down a Council meeting because their protest against police violence “got a little bit out of hand.” They were kicked out and nearly arrested. No one else got to speak.
“People are doing that — shouting! — because they are feeling unheard, because they’re trying to get attention,” says Turcer. She adds, “The most functional democracies happen when officials have the opportunity to listen to us.”
Though disruptive protests will happen, public comment ultimately would make city government more responsive to everyday people. Anyone can comment at committee meetings, but typically only experts and direct stakeholders in an issue end up doing so. At a Monday night comment period, Ohio City residents voicing concerns about the decline of, say, the West Side Market could ensure rescuing it is a citywide concern.
“How can you honestly be a representative of the people if you don’t want to hear what they have to say?” says Yvonka Hall, an activist and outreach director for the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.
Let’s be honest. There is legitimate reason to fear one or two time-wasters hogging the microphone. Several County Council meetings in recent years have become hourslong affairs as dozens of protestors take their turns saying their piece. And even Jones admits that he’s seen his fair share of “residents who may not have been in the best state of mind when they walked up.”
But the benefits outweigh the downsides. Ugly though it may sometimes be, civil confrontation is essential for democracy. Jones’ plan will tamp down on the most egregious disruptors, and council members should be able to handle even spirited feedback. “Anyone who comes in and pounds on me, I’m gonna pound right back,” laughs Mike Polensek, council’s longest-serving representative and a supporter of Jones’ concept. “I’ve got the skin of an armadillo.”
Public comment is a no-brainer. It’s time to take a tip from Johnson’s playbook and include the voice of the public -— the sometimes ugly, honest and unfiltered voice.
Not long after Johnson became mayor, he noticed a trend. Ward councilmen were mimicking his tent meeting-style debates. Johnson witnessed something beautiful in the muddy political process. It “forced them to meet not only the opposition candidates,” he wrote, “but their constituents, as well.”