Fixing Cleveland's broken streets with ... lobster and filet mignon?

CLEVELAND - Our ongoing investigation "Broken Roads, Broken System" into how Cleveland paves and maintains city streets has uncovered a spending decision by the city that has taxpayers asking why.

We followed the money from Cleveland to Houston, but did it need to go there in the first place?

5 On Your Side Investigators have spent years talking to residents who are upset with the condition of streets in Cleveland. Now Danielle Glick, from the west side, is speaking out. “It pisses me off!"

Freddie Moore on the east side is equally frustrated. “I'm pissed off about it!"

Why are they so angry? Let’s first take you back to February 23rd.

"We're clear that our streets are messed up,” said Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones during a budget committee hearing with the Public Works Department.

Other city council members were upset, too.

"Some of the streets you did for me about two or three years ago, they're starting to come apart,” said Councilman Kevin Conwell.

Jones asked a simple question: "Are we using best practices when it comes to fixing up streets?"

The Director of Public Works Michael Cox didn’t skip a beat when he responded, “Believe me, we use all the best practices we can find."

Cox was sitting next to Cleveland’s Commissioner of Streets Randy Scott when Cox said this, “Matter of fact, the commissioner and I are going to an asphalt conference next month."

Ahh, yes. The World of Asphalt Expo in Houston. But the thing is, just two weeks before that committee meeting when Cox said they were ready to go to Texas, the National Pavement Expo happened at the convention center in, you guessed it, downtown Cleveland.

Rodney Canon from Elyria went. He told us, “(I want to) see what new products they have and new ideas." Those are some of the same things Cox and Scott were looking for.

"To talk to vendors and people who do this all over the country,” said Cox during the February 23rd budget hearing.

However, according to Mayor Frank Jackson’s office, they did "not have anyone attending the conference" from the city of Cleveland. Despite the fact city hall is literally right across the street from the convention center.

So, a month later, Cox and Scott headed to Houston. City records show their flights cost taxpayers $495 a person, nearly a thousand dollars.

What about hotel rooms? They stayed at the Le Meridien in downtown Houston. The total cost was $443.43 per person, per night. That means four nights for two men cost you $3,550.

We asked the Marriott Corporation what the rates were for their properties from March 5th to March 9th in downtown Houston. It suggested we "call specific hotels directly."

Expense Report for World of Asphalt Trip

So, we did. The sales office at the Aloft told us they keep track of rates for itself and its nearby competitors. It reported one rate of $259/night at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown and others that were a lot cheaper: $194/night, $179 to $149 and even $144 a night… not $379 per night at Le Meridian and with taxes and fees $443.43 per night.

"My tax dollars are being wasted!" said Moore about the Houston trip.

"You couldn't come to the local (convention) and not spend the money?" questioned Glick.

Our research shows nearly half of the vendors at the convention in Cleveland were also at the expo in Houston.

City records also revealed Cox and Scott rented a car. That’s not uncommon, of course, but their hotel was a half-mile from the convention center. The car cost $470 for their stay.

Now, they did need a ride to and from the airport. If only there was a way to do that without renting a car. Oh yeah, it's called a taxi. A cab each way, airport to hotel with tip, costs $33. So, round trip would have cost $66. We found Uber or Lyft was even cheaper with a round trip total of $38.

Well, maybe they needed the rental car to go to restaurants. However, if they had taken Lyft to and from the airport and to all of their restaurants, the total would have been $98 not $470 to rent a car.

And that's not all. Taxpayers shelled out $34 a night for parking that car at the hotel. Total on that was $136. So, the overall cost for that rental car was $605.

We caught up with Scott after a recent council committee meeting about streets. We asked if he would sit down and talk with us about the Houston trip. “Let me have a conversation with my chief…I saw your request and get something set up,” Scott responded.

For days, we tried to sit down with someone from the city but, once again, the city declined to be a part of our story.

We just asked for details about what they learned in Houston, what we can implement here, and why did they take the trip? Mayor Frank Jackson’s Office provided zero documents, zero reports, or anything that shows what the taxpayers got for their money. Nothing. No one sat down with us. And we weren't the only ones asking.

"So, will you be bringing that back so we can take a look at (what you’ve learned)?” asked Councilman Jones during the February 23 hearing.

“We will bring back what we believe… what is a better practice than what we do," said Cox.

Even with that promise, we got no information and no interview. That’s too bad because we have even more questions about the trip, including what those guys ate. 

Would you believe Scott dined on filet mignon and lobster? Expense reports show it’s true.

Now, the city would probably say "We only paid for half. There was a limit on dinner expenses." To which we would ask, “OK. Which did the citizens pay for, his filet or his lobster?"

"I have to go to McDonald's to eat,” said Moore.

"Instead of spending it on lobster, you should be spending it on our streets,” said Glick. And that's the point. These are the same city leaders that begged for an income tax increase through Issue 32. They wanted people like Facebook page "Fix Our Streets" owner Terry McNeil to vote for it. McNeil, by the way, did go to the National Pavement Expo in downtown Cleveland. "I was shocked. I was shocked. I asked every manufacturer had they talked to anybody from the city. And they said ‘No,’” McNeal told us.

However, the city of Cleveland spent more than $6,000 for a four-day stay in Houston when they could have spent a couple hundred bucks filling potholes that have been causing problems for months and others that linger.

"Get your crap together,” said Glick. “Quit traveling and spending frivolous money."

"I still can't figure it out,” said McNeal.

"They ought to be cognizant of what they do before they misspend our money,” Moore told us.

Here’s the statement from the city of Cleveland about the Houston trip:

Good morning Jonathan, 

We’ll decline the opportunity to interview about the conference, but feel free to use the following statement in your story: 

Representatives from the Department of Public Works attended the World of Asphalt conference in Houston to gather information on emerging trends in asphalt, street and pavement maintenance, and traffic safety. We will continue to invest in the technology, training and employees necessary to help improve the quality of life of the residents of Cleveland. 

If you need more information on what is provided at the conference, you can find it on their website.

Jonathan Walsh has covered Cleveland's broken roads for years. For more of our continuing coverage: Broken Roads, Broken System.   

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