Let the sun shine in
When times are prosperous, neighborhoods are harmonious, and public services are delivered without interruption, we assume municipal government is working well. If roads are crumbling, storm sewers are backing up, and crime seems to be increasing, our local government must be at fault, right?
Of course, it’s never that simple. When state and federal governments cut off major streams of funding, municipalities must scramble to fill the gaps by cutting services or raising taxes and fees, or often by a combination of both. Other than looking to increasingly scarce sources of local news, and consulting the city’s website, how can residents know what their elected and appointed officials are up to?
In Cleveland Heights, citizens can attend regular meetings of city council at 7:30 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of each month (or Tuesday if Monday is a holiday). For those unable to attend in person, the proceedings are videotaped and can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel. Written minutes and links to these videos are also posted on the city’s website. In addition, the League of Women Voters publishes notes from the meetings in the Heights Observer each month.
City council meetings can be quite informative. You can keep up to date on legislation, hear reports from various committees of council, and listen to public comments from fellow residents. What you will not hear are the deliberations behind the legislation. Those take place during council work sessions, called Committee of the Whole (CoW) meetings, at 6:15 p.m. every Monday. These meetings are open to the public in accordance with the Ohio Open Meetings Act, and your humble correspondents have attended many of them over the past several years.
The CoW meets in an executive conference room at city hall, where the city manager and the mayor (who is also council president) sit at opposite ends of a long table, with council members filling the places in between. Chairs for staff and the public line the two long walls of the room. There are no microphones and many council members are soft-spoken; it is often difficult for those not sitting at the table to hear everything that is said.
Each week, council members receive a “packet” containing reports from all the department heads and the city manager. A few years ago, some concerned citizens began making weekly public record requests (in accordance with the Ohio Public Records Act) to the law department for electronic copies of the packet. After many months, in the interest of transparency (and perhaps also to save staff time), the city decided to simply post the packet on its website every Monday afternoon. Now that information is available to everyone.
The proceedings of the CoW, however, are not. Though the Ohio Open Meetings Act, aka the Sunshine Law, requires that government meetings be open to the public, and that minutes be taken and made available to the public, the Cleveland Heights Law Department maintains that the city’s home rule rights take precedence over state law in this instance. It relies on section 107.04(a) of the Cleveland Heights code: “Minutes of Council committee meetings may be recorded in writing.” (Our emphasis.)
CH council takes the position that its CoW meetings (which require a quorum) are not “regular” council meetings, but committee meetings, and therefore minutes “may” be taken but are not required. The upshot? No minutes are kept and the meetings are not videotaped. The city has been sued over this matter and prevailed.
We would like to see this changed. In the spirit of the Sunshine Law, citizens should be privy to the discussions and debates that precede legislative decisions. Council Member Kahlil Seren agrees. He has consistently advocated videotaping CoW meetings and, as chair of the Public Safety and Health Committee, he has made it a point to have his committee meetings videotaped. (It is our understanding that video- and audio-taping can legally substitute for written minutes.)
There are practical considerations: at city hall, only council chambers is set up for videotaping of meetings; the executive conference room can accommodate audio- but not video-taping. Seren has easily resolved this by holding his committee meetings in council chambers.
What do you think? If you would like to see greater transparency on the part of our city government, we urge you to call, write or e-mail the mayor and members of council.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.