Department of Streets and Sanitation Weed-Cutting Program Audit Follow-Up

The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed a follow-up to its July 2020 audit of the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s (DSS) weed-cutting program. Based on the Department’s responses, OIG concludes that DSS has fully implemented one corrective action, partially implemented one, and has not implemented five.

The purpose of the July 2020 audit was to determine if DSS met its goals of mowing all City-owned vacant land at least 4 times during the growing season, and addressed all overgrown weed complaints within 42 days. DSS is responsible for cutting weeds that have grown higher than ten inches on the public way, as well as City-owned and private vacant land. DSS ward superintendents manage this process by visually surveying their wards, responding to complaints, and providing direction to weed-cutting contractors. Because the problem of overgrown weeds disproportionately impacts the West and South Sides of Chicago, DSS’ effectiveness in delivering this service substantially impacts efforts to combat blight in these neighborhoods.

OIG found that although DSS staff were responsible for identifying City-owned vacant lots that require weed cutting, the City did not have a complete or accurate list of such properties. As a result, the Department could not ensure that City-owned vacant lots were cut at least four times per year. Without an accurate list, ward superintendents often entered citations into the Mobile Electronic Ticketing System (METS) for City-owned properties, leaving it up to the Department of Law (DOL) to review and reject these erroneous charges. We also found that DSS staff resolved complaints in a variety of ways, but that flaws in the Department’s data system made it difficult to determine the specifics of any particular closed-out complaint work order. Therefore, DSS could not determine if it addressed weed complaints in a timely manner.

Based on the results of the audit, OIG recommended that DSS work with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and DOL to compile a complete and accurate inventory of vacant City-owned properties, then provide this inventory to weed-cutting contractors for management. We further recommended that ward superintendents be responsible only for identifying sanitation nuisances in their wards and responding to complaints. Next, we recommended that DSS develop—and clearly communicate to staff and contractors—performance-based weed cutting goals covering both management of City-owned land and complaint response. Lastly, we recommended that DSS improve its data entry practices to ensure it captures all the information necessary to assess its weed-cutting performance. In its response to the audit, DSS described corrective actions it would take.

In March 2021, OIG inquired about corrective actions taken by DSS in response to the audit. Based on DSS’ follow-up response, we conclude that the Department has made some progress on the audit’s recommendations, fully or partially implementing two corrective actions, but has not implemented the other five. Specifically, DSS has developed performance-based goals for the weed-cutting process, complaint response, and management of City-owned land; the Department has communicated these goals to staff and contractors. DSS is also actively working with DPD to compile a more accurate inventory of City-owned property. We urge DSS to implement changes for ward superintendents’ responsibilities, begin using a route planning tool to optimize routes, address data quality issues in Salesforce, and better link data between the different systems utilized to track weed cutting.