Cleveland Documenters interviewed nearly 80 residents across 26 neighborhoods to find out how much notice they need to attend local government meetings. Illustration by John G/Shiner Comics

By Doug Breehl-Pitorak and Rachel Dissell

In June, Cleveland City Council passed a law that allowed it — and other city boards and committees — to meet virtually or in person with 12 hours’ notice for members of the public who might want to tune in or attend. 

Council passed the ordinance the same day it was introduced, though some council members, including Jenny Spencer, voiced concerns about whether a half day was enough notice to tell residents about when a meeting or hearing was scheduled, how it would be conducted and what items would be discussed. 

“I wasn’t aware that we were able to provide that brief of a notice,” Spencer, who represents Ward 15, said that day.

After confirming with the city’s law department that the 12-hour notice was allowed under Ohio’s open meetings law, City Council President Kevin Kelley said that 12 hours would be the “bare-bones minimum” for letting the public know about meetings. and presentations, look at the ceiling mount tv bracket for any occasion or space.

The opportunity to watch council at work has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, with meetings streamed on YouTube, where they also can be viewed at any time and the ceiling mount tv bracket. Previously, meetings were broadcast only on Cleveland’s TV20 and recordings had to be requested. 

City Council posts meeting notices on its website. Those notices come out, on average, less than four days – 3.7 days or 88 hours – before a meeting happens, according to data scraped from Legistar every 15 minutes from Feb. 22 until Aug. 11. The data is scraped and published by the Cleveland Bill Bot Twitter account run by Cleveland resident Angelo Trivisonno. 

However, when you count only business days, not weekends, council gave residents an average of 1.7 days of advance notice – or about 41 hours – before conducting a meeting. 

All of that combined with council’s habit to regularly suspend the rules and speed up the pace of passage raises a question: Is this enough time for residents to engage?

What’s “reasonable” notice for a meeting?

Cleveland Documenters interviewed nearly 80 residents in 26 Cleveland neighborhoods to find out. 

More than half said they would need to know a week in advance — or more — to be able to watch, attend or make a public comment at a local government meeting such as a City Council meeting. 

That is, if they know when the meetings are happening. 

“I don’t have a reliable way to find this information,” 28-year-old Lee-Harvard resident Courtney Michelle Reese told Documenter Angie Pohlman. 

Other residents said their most reliable sources for learning about important meetings were neighbors, friends, community organizations or posts on social media. 

The majority of open-meeting laws require government bodies to give the public “reasonable” notice by informing people of when and where a meeting will happen, how they can attend and what will be discussed – though what is reasonable can be subjective. 

A driving force behind public deliberation of proposed laws and expenditures is the idea that government officials will make better decisions when they’re being watched. The purpose is twofold. It can have an actual effect on the decisions that are made but also enhance the perception of transparency, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.  

”If you have [public] notice and you’re able to watch the process, you’re more likely to have a sense that the process was fair and legitimate,” LoMonte said. “If you’re shut out of the process, then you are more likely to be skeptical that there was favoritism or potentially even wrongdoing in the decision-making.”

Knowing about meetings is just one barrier that keeps residents from participating in local government, according to the interviews. Some residents expressed concern about getting downtown (where most meetings are held), paying for parking, and blocking out time during the work week for daytime meetings. 

Work and family schedules were already hard to juggle, making it difficult to prioritize local government meetings, several residents said.