Cleveland Councilman Claims Airport Chief Skirted Contracting Law

Cleveland's airport chief was accused Wednesday of intentionally skirting City Council to complete work on a new taxi pickup area, a violation of city law.

The work, which includes a new wrought-iron fence, lights, sliding glass doors, curbs and road repair, is a significant improvement that requires council approval, Councilman Kevin Kelley said at a meeting of his Aviation and Transportation Committee.

Airport Director Ricky Smith disagreed.

"It's routine work that we do every day," he told Kelley, noting that a city attorney advised him he could proceed without council approval.

But the attorney, Jack Arnold, told the committee that he was unaware of all the improvements Smith had planned. Arnold said that had he known the scope of the work, he would have advised Smith to obtain council approval.

"To the extent of what I understand has been done," Arnold said, "I would have considered it a public improvement."

Smith said he completed the work on a former employee parking lot near the terminal at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport with money from maintenance contracts that council already had approved. He said he did not know how much was spent or who did the work, but he promised to get that information to Kelley soon.

Kelley told Smith that he must follow Cleveland laws, which say public improvements of $10,000 or more must come to council.

"You can't be thinking of creative ways to avoid council," Kelley said.

Last month, Smith acknowledged proceeding with $500,000 worth of other projects without council approval. One project involved $61,000 worth of improvements to another parking lot at Hopkins.

At the time, he apologized and blamed the lapse on miscommunication between an attorney and staff member and pressure to get the work done quickly. He said he set up a review committee to ensure the problem wouldn't happen again.

But in an interview after Wednesday's meeting, Smith said he didn't think the $61,000 in improvements to convert a former employee lot into a public lot required council approval. He said he belatedly sought council approval only to "err on the side of caution."

"Where I'm from, if you restripe a parking lot and you put up a ticket spitter, that's not a public improvement," said Smith, who was named head of Hopkins in June after serving as chief operating officer at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

BWI operates as a regional airport, and officials there do not need council approval to complete parking lot projects.

A spokeswoman said Mayor Frank Jackson had no comment on Kelley's response.

But in a letter to the business community last week, Jackson acknowledged "some glitches" since Smith came on board. Jackson said he and Smith are committed to "working in partnership with City Council and being careful to take all measures to be both responsible and transparent."

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