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When in need of city services, Clevelanders call council members more often than City Hall

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb watches a city worker fill a pothole.
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb watches a city worker fill a pothole in May on East 66th Street. The mayor has pledged to reform the way the city handles resident complaints about services.

New data released by a freshman Cleveland City Council member confirms an unwritten, unglamorous rule of city politics: Whether they like it or not, council members have become Cleveland’s de facto customer service department.

According to the report by Ward 12’s Rebecca Maurer, residents often bypass the city’s 311 phone line and direct nuisance complaints instead to their council members — even if council has no formal role in solving the problem.

“Council offices manage a really high volume of calls,” Maurer told Ideastream Public Media. “We’re not just responding to complicated resident issues, neighborhood problems. We’re the front line of defense for basic city services like replacing garbage bins.”

By Maurer’s count, her office receives nine requests for service each day for such problems as illegally dumped garbage, wide-open abandoned homes and high grass in vacant lots. By contrast, Cleveland’s 311 line averages five-and-a-half calls a day reporting issues in Ward 12.

In her first 110 days on council, Maurer’s office received more than 1,000 requests for service, the report found. But almost 91% of those calls didn’t require a council member’s involvement, by her estimation. Instead, Maurer had to cajole city service departments to respond to the problems, adding to their hefty workload.

In one example highlighted in the report, Maurer wrote that it took four months and 26 emails to six different offices to fix a single lamppost in her ward.

“We’re asking, ‘Pretty please, fit this into your already busy schedule,’” she said. “We’re making it less efficient, too, for the city to actually get through the work.”

The deluge of quality-of-life complaints also gets in the way of council members’ other work, making it harder to work on policy legislation or bring new businesses to the ward, she said.

“I don’t want anyone to read this report and think that I don’t want to hear from my residents. That could not be further from the truth,” Maurer said. “What I want is better services for my residents. I want them to be able to call one place and actually get the responses that they need.”

Mayor Justin Bibb has also said he wants a “one-stop shop” for city service complaints. During last year’s campaign, he said he wanted residents to be able to track their service requests as they would an online purchase.

When Bibb took office, one of the city’s complaint lines — the Mayor’s Action Center — was unstaffed, the administration told council earlier this year. Now, calls to the action center redirect to 311.

The mayor’s press secretary, Marie Zickefoose, wrote in an email to Ideastream that the administration appreciated Maurer’s work and also wanted to reduce the volume of calls to council offices.

“Since day one, we have been evaluating 311 – identifying process improvements, investments in technology, increased staffing, expanded partnerships and better communication,” Zickefoose wrote. “We are currently developing a comprehensive plan to improve service delivery, responsiveness, and public awareness of 311.”

The administration plans to create a “citizen-facing” digital portal that will allow the city to follow up with residents about complaints. The project would include service request data, resident surveys and an artificial intelligence “chatbot,” according to a summary from the city’s information technology commissioner that Zickefoose shared with Ideastream.

A request for proposals to begin that work is expected to be released later this year.

Maurer’s report diagnosed four problems that have led, over the years, to the city’s predicament. One, city departments don’t always communicate directly with residents. Two, council members have encouraged residents to call them first. Three, the city lacks the resources to handle service complaints quickly. And four, outdated city systems don’t manage those resources efficiently.

She is proposing a campaign to spread the word about 311 to Cleveland residents. Council members and the mayor’s administration must also be on the same page about how complaints should be handled, she wrote.

A broken black garbage bin is held together with duct tape.
Rebecca Maurer
Cleveland City Council
A photo of a garbage bin from Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer's report on city services, illustrating delays in obtaining replacement bins.

And finally, the city should start by tackling a few key problems that lead to a high volume of calls, taking a first step toward changing the City Hall’s communication culture, she wrote.

For example, the city faces a backlog of requests for new garbage bins, which has been exacerbated by supply chain delays, Maurer said. She even illustrated her report with a photo of her neighbor’s broken black garbage bin, now held together with a tourniquet of duct tape.

But the city has left residents in the dark about this backlog, and council members have made themselves the middle-man between neighbors and the Division of Waste Collection and Disposal, she wrote.

Instead, the city could send out mailers about the delays, direct residents to 311 and work with council to appropriate money to stock up on new bins, the report says.

Maurer thanked the city workforce in her report, writing that it was City Hall’s procedures — not employees — that needed to change.

“They’ve been trying to keep this city glued together, almost like one of those garbage bins, over years of just not enough resources, not enough time, not enough support,” Maurer said of city workers. “I want to make the job for our workers easier, smoother. I want them to know what to expect on a daily basis.”

Updated: July 27, 2022 at 3:36 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include information from the Bibb administration about plans to create a “citizen-facing” digital portal allowing the city to follow up with residents about complaints.
Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.