Cleveland Snow Removal Policies Under the Microscope After Challenging Winter Storms

By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

Two significant back-to-back  snowstorms crippled most of Cleveland in January, casting a harsh spotlight on the City’s ability to manage its snow removal services, and bringing about a messy start for the new Bibb Administration.

Cleveland City Council and city officials met in February to discuss what happened during these snow events and look for ways to improve the city’s response. Multiple issues of concern were raised by both Council and Administration staff, most relating to failures of policy and communications.

Every Council member and official praised the work done by plow drivers and other front-line staff, while questioning the policies and guidelines they work under.

The City’s incoming Chief Operations Officer, Bonnie Teeuwen, said, “The work done was fantastic, so the question becomes…does the policy meet the needs of the residents and…the businesses of Cleveland, and based on what we’re hearing, no it doesn’t.”

Streets Commissioner Randell Scott showed a PowerPoint slideshow and explained the City of Cleveland’s current snow removal policy. Any amount of snow six inches or higher is handled the same way: main roads are serviced first until they’re passable, followed by residential streets and subsections. The City’s goal is to have main roads completed within 16 hours, and residential streets within 72 hours. The clock on the response goals begins only after the snow event ends. According to Scott, with both snowstorms, the last totaling 12- to 15-inches, the department did meet its policy goals.

Ward 11 Councilman Brian Mooney asked Scott about the 48-72 hour goal to clear residential streets. Scott said the plan was developed through Division of Streets, and “it has been tested, and it works.”

Mooney said that after talking to the residents in his ward, “That (48-72 hours) is not the expectation of the residents. They have a higher expectation, it’s definitely not 72 hours, and so I think we should look and see what we can do to get it away from that 72-hour period.”

Ward 10 Councilman Anthony Hairston said, “We have heard how some folks have lost their jobs because of this. We’ve heard that individuals have been suspended. People have gotten points because they couldn’t make it to work. The 72-hour response, it’s not working.”

The city’s 3-1-1 call center, where residents call to request city services, was staffed with only three people and was overwhelmed with calls during the storm.

Many of these calls were transferred to the Division of Streets, and many went unanswered. Ward 8 Councilman Mike Polensek said it was “totally unacceptable”, and he “(doesn’t) blame anyone who called my office complaining.”
City IT Commissioner Kim Roy Wilson explained to Polensek that having seven workers at the call center is considered fully staffed, adding, “Our call-takers also live in the city of Cleveland; they were unable to get in as well; they’re residents like everyone else. We were fortunate to have two people come in, along with a supervisor.”

Hairston asked about the possibility of city employees being set up to work and take calls from home if they were unable to get in to the office, and was told by Teeuwen that this is an option being considered by the City.

Many of the complaints stemmed from information provided by the City that differed from what residents were seeing on the ground.

A snowplow tracker map linked to the City’s website and touted as a new upgrade repeatedly gave incomplete information, causing confusion among residents as to which streets actually were and were not plowed.

Teeuwen said the City is looking at making improvements to the map or changing to a new system altogether. One solution comes from Cleveland resident Angelo Trivisonno, who has built a reputation here for creating tracker apps for civic use and created his own version of the map, PlowCLE, that automatically updates as the city releases its data.

A statement posted to the City’s Twitter account proclaimed, “We have serviced over 94% in our 1st round of residential plowing,” which was disputed by residents and Council members alike, with full areas of wards reported being untouched by Saturday. (94% ‘serviced’ doesn’t necessarily mean “cleared’, only that they received one plowing, though they may need more.)

Another statement from the Mayor’s spokeswoman announcing that streets would be cleared by 3 p.m. Friday also did not coincide with the reality on the ground, as many residents were still digging out through Saturday.

Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy explained, “We took a bigger hit (angry phone calls) than anybody over the last 72 hours, and a lot of that came not from what was going on in the streets, but what was coming out of City Hall.”

The Observer contacted the City of Cleveland to ask for an explanation of the ‘94% serviced’ statement, and to learn what criteria were used to establish the 3 p.m. Friday timeline but did not receive a response.

The Bibb Administration is looking at a number of improvements and solutions, including increasing the number of trucks, reviewing current policies in snow removal, the 3-1-1 call center, and adding route-optimization technology to ensure the most efficient plow routes are chosen.

The cost of making improvements to the City’s snow removal system will next become a topic of conversation in budget hearings taking place between February and March.

This article was written with information obtained from Documenters.org, a news service providing coverage of local government meetings, currently operating in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.

For more information, visit the City Bureau website.

https://www.citybureau.org/documenters