The head of Cleveland City Council on Monday warned that his colleagues are feeling “consultant fatigue” over Mayor Justin Bibb’s plans to hire Ernst & Young to audit City Hall operations.
Still, council approved the million-dollar contract Monday night. Council President Blaine Griffin said he’d agreed to hear Bibb’s proposal as part of a deal the two had struck on spending federal stimulus dollars.
Bibb enlisted Ernst & Young, one of the world’s biggest consulting and accounting firms, to draw up a 10-year strategic plan for City Hall. The administration gave the firm a broad charge: to find ways to make many of the city’s departments – from Aging, to Public Works, to Human Resources – work better.
Council members raised eyebrows at the idea. Ward 10’s Anthony Hairston said the administration could look to City Hall managers, rather than an outside firm, to chart a strategic plan. And Michael Polensek of Ward 8 said he didn’t need Ernst & Young to tell him what the understaffed city government needs.
“I just cannot see, again, hiring another consultant who’s going to tell me what I already know,” Polensek said. “What I already know is that we don’t have enough people in critical positions.”
The mayor, himself a former consultant for Gallup and the nonprofit Urbanova, has sought outside experts to guide other major projects. Last year, the city issued a call for consultants to tally Burke Lakefront Airport’s economic impact. The administration has also searched for a consultant to evaluate police staffing.
Bibb defended the practice in an interview with Signal Cleveland last year.
“I want the best economist to come up with the economic valuation of Burke,” he said. “What my administration’s really good about is the fact that we’re not all experts in every subject, and we will seek subject matter expertise to make sure that we deliver for the residents of Cleveland in a prudent and effective way.”
It’s not the first time a mayor has asked for help in shaking up city operations. Mayor Ralph Locher formed the “Little Hoover Commission” of local leaders for that purpose in 1965. Mayor George Voinovich asked private sector managers to volunteer their time retooling how City Hall worked. Mayor Frank Jackson convened an “Operations Efficiency Task Force” of city workers and volunteer community leaders in his first term.
But unlike with the Voinovich task force, this time the city is paying. The city is funding the Ernst & Young contract with $500,000 from The George Gund Foundation and $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
At a council committee meeting Monday afternoon, Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah said city workers and directors would still play a part in the strategic planning. Ernst & Young would guide that process and contribute expertise from other cities, he said.
Griffin said that council was growing “tired of consultants,” but that Bibb had asked him to take up the Ernst & Young contract when the two leaders worked out ARPA spending ideas. As part of that deal, Bibb had agreed to redirect $30 million from other priorities into housing programs, Griffin and Abonamah said.
Bibb’s proposal did find some defenders on council. Ward 9 Council Member Kevin Conwell said the mayor needs a strategic plan. Without it, new hires would be lost, he said.
“You could bring in 50 workers,” Conwell said, “and if they don’t know where they’re going, it’d be like Alice in Wonderland, just going around in circles.”