The backstory to Democracy Day

January 1, 2018
by Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

On Thursday, Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights City Council will convene the city’s fifth annual Democracy Day, and you, dear reader, are most cordially invited.

For the uninitiated, Democracy Day gives the public an opportunity to address council about how the political influence of corporate entities, added to obscene amounts of money spent in the political process, is degrading the democratic institutions of our city, our state and our nation. Following the hearing each year, a letter stating the reason for the event and summarizing citizens’ remarks is sent by council to our U.S. senators, our U.S. congress member, and the presidents of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House. That letter, the full text of the petition, plus written minutes and a video, can be viewed on the city’s website under Government, Archived Agendas and Minutes, Public Hearings.

Why do we do this in Cleveland Heights? What’s the backstory?

Starting in 2012, about 50 Cleveland Heights Move to Amend volunteers (your neighbors and friends) spent hundreds of hours collecting the signatures of CH registered voters. They did so through a process called the citizen’s initiative, the right to which was established by the 1912 Ohio Constitution, still in force today. By July 2013, the campaign was able to submit more than 3,000 signatures to the CH clerk of council—more than enough for the initiative to make the November 2013 ballot as a proposed ordinance:

"Shall the proposed ordinance entitled ‘Political Influence by Corporate Entities,’ establishing annual public hearings before City Council on this subject, and sending a summary of the public hearing to Congressional and State representatives, and calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that only human beings, not corporations, are legal persons with Constitutional rights, and that money is not the equivalent of speech, be adopted?”

Of the CH residents who voted on the issue, 77 percent voted “Yes,” thus establishing annual Democracy Day hearings. Dozens of other cities across the country and 11 others in Ohio have passed similar ballot measures, all calling for a constitutional amendment establishing that constitutional rights are for human beings only, and money does not equal free speech, so campaign expenditures can be regulated. In addition, hundreds of city councils nationwide, and 12 in Ohio, have passed resolutions containing the same language.

Of course, we cannot amend the U.S. Constitution with local action. But we can send a message to our state and federal elected officials, and Democracy Day is one way to do so.

At the federal level, national Move to Amend has worked with Congressman Rick Nolan (D-MN) who, with 20 co-sponsors, introduced the “We the People Amendment,” House Joint Resolution 48, in the 115th (2017–18) Congress. Early in 2017, Move to Amend announced the goal of reaching 35 co-sponsors before year’s end. That was easily achieved and surpassed; 50 co-sponsors have joined Nolan for a total of 51 signers to date—including Marcia Fudge (OH-11) and Marcy Kaptur (OH-9). The next heavy lift will be to get companion legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Last year, 70 people attended CH’s Democracy Day, and 26 spoke on topics covering a wide range of policies that directly affect local citizens, including:

• Privatization of municipal services nationally led to the city’s outsourcing of its building department.
• The cost of running for the Ohio House ($1.6 million) and Ohio Senate (over $2 million) favors entrenched incumbents and shuts out newcomers.
• Tax dollars are being shifted from public schools to subsidize charter schools and vouchers in an attempt to privatize public education.
• Some CH neighborhoods remain ravaged by the effects of foreclosures; two speakers connected these conditions, and the city’s inability to fully rectify them, to the political influence of the financial industry.

If the concept of an American government of the people, by the people, and for the people seems a more distant ideal than ever, you can help bring it a little closer. Whether you want to speak up or just listen, don’t miss Democracy Day at Cleveland Heights City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m.

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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 heightsdemocracy [at] gmail.com.

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