Roldo: Stink, Stink, Stink From City Hall

I covered Cleveland City Hall for decades and I don’t remember two important City Council votes in close time proximity ever not carrying more than a two-thirds majority.

You might have dissenters but usually they remain a small minority.

The large vote against should be a signal to take another good look.

This seems a strong rebuke to City Hall leadership. It means almost a majority of the Council couldn’t swallow this deal.

You usually don’t find the kind of opposition that these measures have been gaining in Council. It is a warning sign that there is little confidence in Mayor Frank Jackson on some very important matters.

It also shows weak Council and Mayor leadership on such important deals when many – possibly one short of a turndown since a member was absent – Council members can’t swallow what’s put before them.

The two votes I’m talking about are first, legislation to spend $86 million to automate billing at the  Cleveland water department and second, a deal to give a company  from China a 10 year lock on the purchase of new-technology lighting (LED) for streets and other uses. And that’s without a competitive bid. The LED deal could involve the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars for new street and other public lighting. It’s no small matter.

Neither piece of legislation could get a two-thirds vote. With a two-thirds vote the legislation could take effect immediately with the mayor’s signature. Without such a vote the legislation must be addressed three times by Council.

Yesterday, the Finance Committee of Council alone– where all legislation must be heard – couldn’t come up with the needed votes despite a meeting that went on, I was told, from 2 p. m to 10:30 p. m. The measure still would have to go to a full Council meeting for a final vote.

This light bulb controversy at Cleveland city hall has a very distasteful smell. It smells of rank favoritism. Maybe worse. And the questions are not being adequately answered for the members seeking better information.

I just can’t see a 10 year contract being handled this way.

The legal pass given to this legislation by Law Director Robert Triozzi itself seems a decision based on following orders from above. It gives the answer the Mayor wants.

The basis is that only this company ALONE can fulfill the legislative requirements. That sounds so bullshit. Let’s be real about this.

I’m told by one Council member that the legislation by-passed other Council committees such as the Utilities, Economic Development and Legislation. In other words this had the stamp of a Rush Job. The membership of the Finance Committee typically has only the strongest supporters of the Council President, in this case, Marty Sweeney. Sweeney and Mayor Frank Jackson are politically allied. That they couldn’t put together enough votes for passage suggests caution.

The China deal supposedly will bring the Chinese company, Sunpu-Opto, to Cleveland with its U. S. headquarters and 350 jobs here including production facilities. The company world headquarters is in Ningbo, China and its web site only lists an e-mail address for the U. S.

What makes this China deal smell is the suspension of the usual safeguard against deals that could be suspect or worse, All matters of $50,000 or more cost – no shabby figure – are to go out for public bid. In other words, you don’t go to a single supplier and make a deal. You offer the opportunity to as many as possible to fulfill the need. It’s called competition. It’s supposed to get you the best offer.

Another aspect that should (and has) raised some suspicion is the relationship of Peter Tien, a New Jersey businessman, who had a relationship with the City of Cleveland involving a trash-to-energy plant for Cleveland.

It appears that Tien will be a principal in Sunpu-Opto. How did that happen? And is it an obvious conflict of interest?

Mark Gillispie of the PD reported that Tien would be a part owner of Sunpu-Opto.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Tien told council members May 3 that he had served as a ‘friend’ to the city and to Sunpu-Opto when he introduced city Public Power Commissioner Ivan Henderson to officials from the Chinese company last August.  The introduction occurred while Henderson and Tien traveled to Japan and China to look at gasification plants that convert trash to energy.”

Gillispie also reported that veteran Councilman Jay Westbrook and usually an ally of Sweeney asked, “There is an expectation that they have clean hands in the advice they’re giving. If they have a business interest or friendship connection, that’s something that needs to be known fully up front.” Messages left with Tien on Friday were not returned, Gillispie wrote.

This doesn’t give me much confidence in the administration’s position. Further, I have little confidence in the Sweeney regime being forthright enough to demand answers. There are too many lazy Council members.

Westbrook voted against the legislation in Finance on Monday, as did Dona Brady, Zach Reed, Brian Cummins, T. J. Dow, Mike Polensek, Kevin Conwell and Jeff Johnson. That means eight of 19 voted against. Anthony Brancatelli was at a Leadership Cleveland meeting and didn’t vote.

Gillispie also put together an extensive and informative  look at the deal in Monday’s newspaper. It can be found here.

The PD Editorial Board wasn’t buying it either. In an editorial it questioned the deal:

“But Jackson and his administration need to make a far better case than their proposed partner can actually do the job as touted, and that the deal is so different from all others than it warrants tossing aside City Hall’s standard bidding process – procedures that protect the city and its resident from nasty surprises.”

Unfortunately, the editorial’s tone wasn’t powerful enough. It should be calling for an investigation by the proper authorities. FBI maybe.

Brent Larkin also questioned Jackson’s decision on the no-bid contract here.

Larkin too goes at it a bit gingerly.

He seems to rely on Jackson’s emissaries.

Larkin gives too much credit to Jackson’s salesman Chris Warren. Warren, a former Mike White loyalist, Larkin says, “knows what he’s doing.” But that doesn’t mean at all that he’s doing what’s good for the city and not just his bosses. He’s been a loyal water-carried before.

In this case, competition is even of more importance because we have the General Electric Company, which has some 700 employees located here, and does similar work right in our backyard in East Cleveland’s Nela Park. GE had its lawyers at the Council meeting. A suit is likely if this goes through.

But it would be good if Council reconvened and knocked this deal down.

Read the follow-up story here.

Roldo Bartimole celebrates 50 years of news reporting this year. He published and wrote Point of View, a newsletter about Cleveland, for 32 years. He worked for the Plain Dealer and Wall Street Journal in the 1960s.

He was a 2004 Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame recipient and won the national Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage in 1991.

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