Democratically speaking . . .
After one year, Cleveland Heights City Council and the mayor are starting to get their sea legs with our new form of government—and each other.
As longtime CH government watchers, we are astounded by the hours this council expends in regular meetings, committee meetings, special meetings, and emergency meetings. Their attendance record is excellent compared with that of other councils we have observed over close to a decade. With nominal pay and negligible benefits, these supposedly part-time legislators have put in full-time hours, even rescheduling vacations to meet the mayor’s last-minute meeting requests.
Their dedication is impressive, but going forward, they must make it clear to the administration that council’s schedule is to be respected and observed. The mayor, who is very protective of his staff’s time and schedules, should be the first to understand this.
Meanwhile, the comment portions of council meetings need immediate work. Members of the public must now sign up in order to speak, but not everyone knows that. A large sign outside council chambers should explain this procedure. A basket could be provided there for completed forms; better yet, replace individual forms with a roster on a clipboard.
Before public comment begins, speakers are directed to start by clearly stating their names for the record. The council president should prompt those who do not, and, when necessary, remind them to speak into the microphone.
Past councils have seldom responded to public comments during meetings. Council President Melody Hart takes a different approach, often replying to speakers as they return to their seats. Frequently, a dialogue ensues. But unless speakers go back to the microphone at the podium, they cannot be heard at all on the livestream or the subsequent video.
Now that audio-visual recordings constitute part of the public record of council meetings, this is unacceptable. Hart, or whomever conducts a meeting in her absence, should make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The same holds true for public meetings, such as the recent budget hearings. When city staff do not speak directly into a microphone, their remarks are completely lost to remote viewers, video watchers and the public record. Mayor Kahlil Seren should coach his directors in microphone use.
In fact, we wish the mayor himself would make regular use of his microphone during council meetings [and provide] brief statements about recent accomplishments at city hall. Too often, when prompted for “Communications from the Mayor,” he passes. It’s a missed opportunity.
Hart has instituted a rule whereby public comments on agenda items only are heard early in the meeting. Attendees addressing other matters must wait, often for an hour or more, to speak.
There is a strict three-minute limit for both public and council member comments; in the past several months, however, when the council president feels that a meeting is running long, she cuts comment times to a minute and a half. Often, members of the public and council [have] carefully prepared, in order to cover their points within the allotted three minutes. Perhaps the president does not realize that arbitrarily cutting people’s time in half with no notice is not only unfair and discourteous; it violates the democratic intent of inviting public comment at all.
We certainly hope she will reconsider and eliminate this practice. We would also like to see all public comment returned to its place of honor early in the agenda.
After we originally submitted this column, we learned of CH Council Member Josie Moore’s sudden resignation. This is a loss to the city, and another challenge to council, which now has only 45 days to appoint her replacement. We wish the council luck and courage.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.