A phone call could have unleashed an army of snowplow trucks owned by private companies already contracted by the city of Akron. Officials now admit it was a mistake to wait five days before making that call after heavy snowfall the weekend of Jan. 19.

That detail came out in a regular meeting about municipal services Monday as an elected official laid into the administration's admittedly "unsuccessful" handling of snow and ice removal last week.

“I think we went into it blindly,” said Bruce Kilby, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan’s most outspoken critic on City Council. “I’m angry. You know why? My people are angry. I was elected to express their anger.”

Kilby accused colleagues of cowering to the mayor in this election year. He demanded to have the phone number for the city's two snowplow dispatchers, who were told by Deputy Service Director Chris Ludle not to take outside calls while dealing with more than 50 city trucks and police requests. Kilby also criticized Horrigan for flying to Washington, D.C., on official business while 70 percent of Akron lay beneath 12 inches of untouched snow, 48 hours after the storm had passed.

The criticism sparked a half-hour discussion with the directors of Public Service and even Horrigan, who doesn’t always attend council's afternoon meetings but decided to walk upstairs after hearing his name repeatedly.

“I know there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on and there’s a lot of teeth-gnashing, but the fact is this was an operation that was executing a flawed strategy," said Horrigan, whose administrators apologized for the effort last week. "We have not taken a look at that strategy in a long time. And that doesn’t disparage the work and literally the 16-hour shifts" of plow truck drivers, dispatchers and others.

Multiple council members spoke of neighbors pulling cars out of ditches or unable to make critical medical appointments like blood transfusions at dialysis centers. The storm ended Sunday. City plow trucks didn't reach some side streets until Wednesday.

Horrigan and his team have put some of the blame on the sheer size of the city and a contractual need to service state highways first. But city officials said they also erred by waiting five days to ask private plow trucks for help.

“Our entire snow removal team worked 24 hours a day from prior to the storm and throughout the entire storm. It wasn’t enough,” Public Service Director John Moore said. “We did not get into the residential areas as soon as we should have. The service department, the service director, made a tactical error in not hiring private contractors immediately during this storm. We should have hired them immediately. We need to take a hard look at our operations and establish a new set of plowing protocols.”

Moore told the Beacon Journal that he thought the city could handle the snow. The decision to go it alone wasn't about saving money, he said. It was just "a miscalculation."

Council President Margo Sommerville broke into the discussion with news that she is appointing a Snow and Ice Removal Task Force to review the city's longstanding strategy and recommend changes by March 1. The task force will consist of five from council, five city administrators and five residents, including a retired public service director.

Councilman Zack Milkovich, who is being challenged in the May primary by a mayor-backed candidate, held up a cellphone image of Horrigan sitting at a table in Washington on Tuesday, the day he flew away as 14 Akron school buses got stuck in deep snow. After 36 hours at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Horrigan cut the trip short, returning Wednesday evening instead of Thursday as hackers unleashed a ransom attack crippling the city’s communications.

Horrigan shrugged off the political and personal attacks. It’s not his job to get council to agree with him, he said. “My concern is to promote an agenda that helps the city grow, that helps it deliver world-class services, period, with the budget and particular constraints that we have,” Horrigan said.

“I think we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Is there enough equipment out there to [handle the next severe winter storm]? How are the drivers trained? What do the routes look like?” the mayor asked, referring to 59 sections of road given priority, according to a plan created when the city had more plow trucks and employees.

“Why is the plow head up [when trucks drive between scheduled routes]?” the mayor asked. “Plowing is a verb. I get it …  There’s nobody that’s been harder on my administration in the past five days than me.”

Staffing has been flat at the city's Snow and Ice Control division since a 45 percent reduction in 2009, city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said. The Beacon Journal asked what, if anything, has changed from the prior administration.

"The last similar snow event was in 2014 under the [Don] Plusquellic administration," Nischt said. "It had similar snowfall rates, less accumulation and single digit temperatures after the event. Cleanup after that event took about a week or more to finish up as everything was frozen solid until temperatures climbed out of the single digits. Since that time, we have made minor improvements and adjustments to the program, but no major changes."

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.