A pile of leftover asphalt is creating quite a stir for local politicians and city workers.
It is being alleged that city workers with the Public Works Department illegally used city funds when they paved a “driveway” on the right side of Von’s Exotic Hair Salon last month.
Last week’s cover of The Real Story, a local weekly newspaper, featured an enlarged photo of the salon with the headline “City Approves Paving for Private Business.”
However, officials with the City of Columbus and salon owner Lavonne Harris say that’s only half true. While Public Works did pave the apron, as it is commonly called, in front of the store, numerous sources with the city claim that patch of road is city right of way, and by all accounts, the city is responsible for maintaining it.
According to Harris and city officials, reporters at The Real Story, specifically Joseph St. John, did not check with the City of Columbus, the Public Works Department or Harris to check facts or to verify the story. Of the new asphalt Harris says, “If The Real Story wanted the real story, the “real” truth, they should have come and asked me. Then they would have a real story to print.” Public Works Director Mike Pratt says, “St. John dropped a letter off at my office Monday morning after he’d already printed the story on Wednesday. Monday morning was the first I’d heard from him.”
St. John claims he did file a Public Records Request, but admits on his website that it was in fact filed on Monday morning; nearly a week after the story originally ran. In response to a question asking if the mayor’s office was asked for comment St. John says, “In situations such as this, which may very well develop into a legal matter, our policy is to request written documentation of the records involved. As a result, we filed a Public Records Request with the appropriate City department, this morning (Monday).”
According to Harris, she called Charlie Box, her councilman, back in November of 2011 concerning the area in front of her shop. Von’s parking lot is loose gravel while businesses on either side have paved parking lots. Harris’s salon has been in the Gardner Blvd. location for five years and she claims that the apron has continuously deteriorated in that time period. Harris claims that customers and employees alike would complain about the rough patch when their cars would transition from the smooth highway to the bumpy apron that is considered the city’s right of way. Harris said that once she spoke with Box, Assistant Public Works Director Casey Bush called her saying Public Works would get to it as soon as they could.
Harris states that November and December passed without any word from Box or Bush so she called Mayor Robert Smith in January to complain. Harris says that after several attempts, and an unsuccessful trip down to his office, Smith returned her phone call and she, Smith, Box, Bush and Pratt met at the store to discuss the potential project.
Harris says that once city officials saw the poor condition of the apron, they agreed it was in need of paving.
Harris says that several weeks went by and she did not hear from anyone at the city and “I thought they forgot about it.”
Then, Harris said, “I looked out my window one Tuesday morning and there they were.” Harris said that she went outside and talked and joked with the workers, even offering them water. Once the project was nearing completion, Harris says she asked the workers what they did with the extra asphalt once they were finished paving. She says they told her that they commonly dump the extra because it hardens and renders useless if it’s left in the back of the truck. [Hot mix hardens almost immediately and is considered useless once it cools. Hot mix is used to pave roadways while cold mix is used to fill potholes. SF]
She then says she asked if they could dump the excess on the right side of the building where she parks her car because “water collects there when it rains.” The workers told her that no they could not so Harris claims she called Pratt to ask him. Pratt was out checking on the department’s various projects and stopped by the salon to talk with Harris. By the time Pratt arrived the project was coming to a close and Pratt claims there was a minuscule amount of hot mix left in the truck. Pratt admits that he then gave the workers permission to dump the excess on the right side of the hair salon. Harris says that while the workers did dump the asphalt, “I had to go out there and spread it out myself.” The piece of pavement in question is spread thin, measuring less than one fourth of an inch thick in some places and grass growing up throughout.
The Real Story alleges that Smith was behind the paving of the driveway, implying that creating the “makeshift driveway” was a favor for Harris.
Harris is President of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and acknowledges that it may appear as if a favor was being done. However, she adamantly states that that is not the case saying, “This is business. If my customers are complaining, their tires messing up, the road being rough, and it’s the city’s right of way, I’m going to say something.”
Pratt denies he was following the mayor’s orders to pull a favor for Harris and said he dumped the mix because “it was the last bit that we had to get out of the truck. We had to throw it away. There was no ill intention.”
He added, “If I meant to put asphalt there, to pave her something special, it wouldn’t look that like, no way. It would look a whole lot better than that.”
Mayor Smith readily admits to the apron paving saying “The reason why it was paved was because there was such a big drop off there. It was in the city right of way. You have to build up the street.” He denies any involvement in the new driveway saying, “I don’t know how it got there. I wasn’t even aware of the extra. I don’t know how it got there but Mike Pratt didn’t talk to me.”
According to sources within the city, the issue is expected to be brought up at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, with it being reported that one councilman is calling for Pratt’s termination.