Spring in Cleveland may bring warmer weather, but for City Council members, it also brings a raft of complaints about trash, tall grass and weeds in their communities.
At a meeting of the council’s Health, Human Services, and the Arts Committee on Monday, April 11, council members cited these matters as top issues in their wards and asked the Bibb administration for quicker updates and an online system for tracking complaints.
“It’s us that’s getting beat up on,” said Ward 9 council member and committee chair Kevin Conwell, who was clearly feeling the heat already even though the high temperature Monday was only 55 degrees. “When the snow melts, it’s on, and it’s your (the council member’s) fault.”
Ward 12 council member told The Land that nuisance complaints such as trash, high grass and weeds are some of the biggest problems in her ward — and they’re not getting addressed in a timely way, or in some cases at all.
“Every time I’m out walking, I see drastic health complaints,” she said. “I just walked by two houses with numerous mattresses and trash stuck in the walkway between the houses. Those mattresses become a home for mice and rats and then it becomes an issue for the neighbors. It’s a very serious issue.”
Interim commissioner of the environment Patrick Cusick gave an update on how complaints are handled. He said the department receives more than 5,700 complaints a year and added it’s a challenge to process them in a timely way while also updating residents and council members.
“The huge number of complaints is daunting,” said Cusick, noting there’s currently no way for residents to track their own complaints in the system. “We had a legacy system that collapsed two years ago, and we had to build a system from scratch.”
“Can we get more regular updates from you?” pressed Ward 5 council member Richard Starr. “When the weather breaks, we’re about to be swamped with those calls, and we need to do something immediately.”
Cusick said it’s not possible to give the council weekly updates, but he will work on a solution. “I want to underpromise and overdeliver,” he said, adding later, “I hear you that we’re not reporting to you in a timely way.”
Here’s how the process works: Complaints are received by the Cleveland Department of Public Health (CDPH) by phone at 311 or through the website. Council members have their own web portal for submitting complaints. Currently, CDPH is not using Accela, a software designed to automate and track complaints and other matters to improve citizen satisfaction.
Once complaints for nuisances like overflowing trash or tires and mattresses piled up in backyards are submitted, CDPH staff enter them into a complaint dashboard before they’re reviewed and assigned to an inspector. During high volume periods, the city may send out a letter notifying the property owner before conducting a site visit.
If a nuisance can be seen from the street, it can be ticketed or given a violation notice right away. Otherwise, the inspector has to schedule a visit with the complainant or property owner. The ticket or violation can be issued to the tenant, property owner, or agent of the property. Inspectors can issue a ticket onsite, which levies an immediate fine but can’t be taken to court, or a violation notice, which gives time to comply but can lead to court action. Tickets and violation notices are hung on the door or mailed.
Cusick said inspectors “lean towards the violation notice” because it gives the offender time to comply and can lead to court action. In extreme cases, CDPH can refer the resident to other services or the city can step in and address the issue. Cases are prosecuted in housing court, with tickets carrying a maximum penalty of $150 plus court costs for an individual and $1,000 plus court costs for an entity. Penalties can be increased if the responsible parties don’t comply.
Ward 12 council member Rebecca Maurer said even if an inspector goes out right after a complaint is received, enforcement is a huge issue. “Houses fall through the cracks all the time, there’s not a level of compliance, and we don’t have the tools to address the issues,” she told The Land.
Glenville resident Carolyn Cooper agreed. She called about a vacant house with trash in the yard nearly two years ago and although the city said it sent out an inspector, the problem is still there. “I called the health department and said, ‘The tree looks like it’s about to fall into the house,’ and there were two big hedges that weren’t trimmed,” she said, but as of this writing, “that house is still a nuisance.”
Ward 13 council member Kris Harsh said the problem is often absentee landlords, and violation notices are more likely to lead to enforcement and compliance. “You can ticket in the hope that it jostles them out of complacency, but don’t ticket the landlords, because they’ll just pay the fine as the cost of doing business,” he said.
At the meeting, Maurer said the city needs to do a better job of contacting landlords because if the city sends the notice to the property and the landlord doesn’t live there, they may not receive it. She cited an example where she’d called a landlord about a bin of used diapers that had spilled onto the ground at a vacant property. They were unaware of the problem because the tenant was no longer there, but cleaned it up after the phone call.
Conwell mentioned a Channel 5 story that investigated a nuisance house in Glenville and complained that TV news doesn’t taken the time to understand the complaint process and simply blames the city. “They don’t know, and they really don’t care,” he said.
Conwell and other council members want a quicker system of getting updates, something Bibb promised. However, Cusick said CDPH’s systems are “archaic and outdated” and it’s something they’re working to address.
“Our staff are diligent … they’re often out there the next day (after a complaint is issued),” he said. “I hear you that we’re not reporting to you in a timely way.”
Council members told The Land that having an online complaint tracking system would help. “You may put in a ticket request, but there’s no communication that it’s been taken care of,” Starr said. “We need to do that because civic engagement is where we’re lacking in our neighborhoods, and residents need to be able to learn the process.”
Harsh said it may not be feasible for CDPH to provide automatic updates, in part because of medical privacy laws in instances where there’s childhood lead poisoning. The Department of Building and Housing currently tracks complaints online, and all council members have access to this information, he said. He’s also worried about straining the city’s already-stretched resources.
“A lot of people would like to be given things without asking, but one thing you learn quickly at city hall is that if the city does it for one council person, they have to do it for all 17,” he said.
Maurer said it would be more efficient if residents could track complaints without the council member doing it for them. “I want to live in a world where the council doesn’t manage these things,” she said. “I don’t live in that world. An incredible proportion of my day is spent tracking down which inspector did what. It would be incredibly helpful.”
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.