When winter storms appear, snow and ice do not just wreak havoc on streets, driveways and the morning commute. If not handled effectively, the winter mix also can annihilate a public official's approval rating — and the outcome of the next election.

Most municipal leaders are aware of stories like those of former Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic's failed re-election bid in 1979 after 18 inches of snow blocked city streets for weeks, preventing garbage collection and creating traffic chaos. In 2008, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was criticized for not using salt during a storm, and he was defeated in the primary a year later. And last winter, local government officials were reminded of stories like those after New York and Atlanta, and plenty of spots in between, experienced record snowfall — and less-than-efficient cleanups.

Why is winter storm cleanup so politically charged? “Snow management affects nearly every citizen,” says Mark Cavers, research associate at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization focused on government accountability. “With many government policies, the effectiveness is not realized for months or sometimes years. With snow removal, citizens know immediately how government is performing.”

Campaign funds clear the streets

This winter saw its share of political ramifications from storms. On Feb. 1, just three weeks before municipal elections in Chicago, the city was hit with more than 20 inches of snow. “The city's snow removal quickly became an issue in many aldermanic campaigns,” Cavers says. “Challengers hit incumbents on their failure to remove snow from their wards, portraying them as incompetent and ineffective. To combat and preempt those allegations, a number of aldermen hired private snow removal services, spending between $5,000 and $10,000 from their campaign funds, to clear streets and sidewalks in their wards.”

Similarly, streets across New York City remained unplowed and impassable days after a blizzard hit on Dec. 26. Facing extensive criticism, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor of Operations Stephen Goldsmith took responsibility for the cleanup failures, but noted that the reasons for the slow response were complex.

“We didn't do the job that New York City residents and taxpayers deserve, or the job they have come to expect from this administration,” Goldsmith says. “We were too slow to respond and too slow to finish clearing our streets. It is worth noting that many factors, both within and outside of the city's control, combined to make responding to this blizzard particularly challenging.”

Goldsmith says the city was caught off guard by weather forecasts that predicted low accumulations, and when the snow finally began, it fell at more than two inches per hour. He also noted that more vehicles were on the road because the storm began on a holiday weekend.

Government officials in large cities were not the only ones affected by snow removal problems this year. For instance, about 300 citizens called Oshkosh, Wis., city officials in December to complain about road conditions following a storm of freezing rain and 11 inches of snow. And in February, the chief executive of Wayne County, Mich., fired the county's director of roads after slow response to a storm that dumped 10 inches of snow on the area.

Altering the system

An inadequate response to winter storms may draw the ire of residents, but failing to fix the problem might be worse. Two weeks after the New York Christmas storm, Deputy Mayor Goldsmith appeared at a public hearing to address the city's response to the storm and present a plan for change. “All of us here are committed to learning from this experience and to quickly making the necessary changes to ensure that a response like this never happens again,” Goldsmith said at the meeting.

Then, Goldsmith and Bloomberg directed the Office of Operations to review the city's response to the storm. “We wanted to understand what went wrong, and how the city should be better prepared for the future,” Goldsmith says.

That in-depth review revealed problems in six areas:

  • A snow emergency should have been declared.
  • Insufficient accountability tools led to a lack of real-time information on street conditions.
  • City assets were insufficient and/or delayed.
  • Private resources were not procured and prepositioned.
  • Communication within city government and to the public was insufficient.
  • There were problems with emergency communications/response.

The review resulted in a 15-point plan for improvements to the city's snow response system, including amending the process of declaring a snow emergency, improving the hiring of additional laborers, and improving two-way communications through a real-time portal. The plan also better incorporates technology, such as equipping every plow truck with GPS-enabled phones with two-way communication to enable more frequent productivity reporting to improve public transparency and to assist in determining when more resources should be deployed, and the use of live monitors to stream video of trouble spots.

The response of New York leaders in the face of broad criticism reflects some of the best practices for keeping snow and ice management from becoming political problems, according to Cavers. One of the most important things governments can do is to keep lines of communication open. “Gov. Christie [of New Jersey] and Mayor Bloomberg were both blasted in part for failing to communicate their efforts to citizens and demonstrate their leadership on snow removal,” Cavers says. He also noted that Chicago drivers were trapped on Lake Shore Drive for hours with little information on rescue plans.

Cavers says another vital tactic is to have an emergency backup plan in place. This year, for instance, Chicago relied on 32 private companies to help plow snow. Some cities also set up a system to gauge their performance in removing snow and ice from roadways. “Many cities have performance goals for plowing and salting within a certain amount of time,” Cavers says. “This allows officials to track their own performance and communicate to citizens what can be reasonably expected.”

Finally, Cavers suggests privatizing snow and ice removal as a way of cutting costs while maintaining services. “Impassable roads are symbolic of ineffective government, and because the failure to remove snow adequately represents such a tangible and direct interruption of citizens' daily routines, voters are likely to take their annoyance to the polls.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Huntsville, Ala.-based freelancer.

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