Better city council attendance expected at this year's Democracy Day hearing

March 12, 2019
Sarah Elms

Wednesday is Democracy Day in Toledo, and that means city council chambers will fill up with citizens ready to address their elected officials about any topic they choose.

The annual hearing is mandated by a 2016 citizen vote that made Toledo officially in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution to say corporations do not have the same rights as individuals and thus cannot be protected by campaign finance restrictions. Part of the measure also requires Toledo officials to hold a public hearing in March for citizens to speak or submit written testimony.

Last year Toledoans talked about water quality, affordable housing, racism, and health care, but not many elected officials were present to hear them.

Only three of 12 councilmen — Yvonne Harper, Tyrone Riley, and Nick Komives — attended last year’s hearing. Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz arrived about 30 minutes into the hearing after attending a listening session with employees from the city’s inspection department.

This year at least six councilmen and the mayor said they plan to attend. Councilman Nick Komives will chair the hearing for the second year in a row and said it’s important to allow citizens to be heard.

“I think all too often our democratic process is not as open to the public as it should be, and this is one of those opportunities for citizens to come forward and share what they think are challenges for our city and also share things they may think are really great,” Mr. Komives said. “Any opportunity that any of us has to engage in conversation with our constituents is a good thing, so I absolutely would encourage my colleagues to come and hear what the citizens have to say.”

Councilman Peter Ujvagi said he had planned on going to the hearing, but it conflicts with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s conference he’ll be attending in Washington. Sandy Spang also will be in Washington for a National League of Cities conference.

Mr. Ujvagi said the Democracy Day hearing is worthwhile, especially on the heels of two citizen-led local ballot initiatives, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and Keep the Jail Downtown efforts. Both passed at the polls in February.

“I think it’s an interesting opportunity, particularly right now, because it’s very clear that citizen activism is on the rise,” he said.

In fact, supporters of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights charter amendment initiative intend to speak on Wednesday about the opposition campaign they faced, the funders of which are unknown.
Councilman Tom Waniewski said he attended the first Democracy Day hearing in 2017 and he doesn’t plan to go again.

“There was so much disrespect — people swearing at us. I said, ‘I’m not going to this again,’” he said. “There’s a fine line between democracy and downright disrespect, and I’m not up for being disrespected.”
Councilman Chris Delaney said he heard the hearings have grown contentious in the past, but he’s willing to give it a try. If it isn’t productive, he likely won’t go again next year, he said.

Mr. Riley, Larry Sykes, Cecelia Adams, and Gary Johnson also plan to attend on Wednesday. Rob Ludeman will not attend, and council President Matt Cherry said he may not be able to make it because of a family obligation. Ms. Harper could not be reached on Monday.

Last year’s hearing was just over three hours long. Mr. Komives said he will limit each speaker’s testimony to three minutes this year to ensure everyone has a chance to speak. He also wants to allow time for councilmen to offer feedback.

The hearing begins at 4 p.m.