Snow Removal and Democracy

The Washington Post
February 23, 2003 Sunday
HEADLINE: How Democracy Could Clear Our Snowy Streets


I’ve been thinking about snow and democracy recently. It’s hard not to when you’re confined at home for five days because of the absence of snow removal. But while last weekend’s storm was of historic proportions, my confinement was nothing new.

As someone who has lived in this area for years, I know that snow removal on side streets ranks about as high as raccoon removal among local governmental priorities. In Alexandria, where I now reside, snow removal is called spring.

The way to end this naturalist approach to winter is simple: Make the positions of street and sanitation director two-year elected posts in jurisdictions throughout the region.

Every time it snows, citizens complain about snow removal and city officials express their surprise about the size of the storm. These officials then explain that crews are working overtime and call for patience from the public. Snow removal is treated like a venture into the unknown. In reality, it is a simple ratio of snow to snow crews: more crews, more snow removal.

Many citizens have resigned themselves to the fact that they probably will have to wait days before their neighborhood sees a plow. Others are outraged by the situation, but their bitter memories melt with the snow.

In Chicago, where I was raised, we threw out Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979 because the streets were not cleared within 24 hours after a 20-inch snowfall. Since then, Chicago officials have cleared the streets as though their jobs depended on it.

In my Alexandria neighborhood, side streets remained impassable until late Tuesday, three days after the storm hit. The lack of plowing kept many people from their jobs at a huge loss in productivity. Local businesses suffered. By Tuesday morning, some neighbors had tried to force their cars over almost two feet of snow, and the streets were littered with cars looking like so many frozen mastodons.

The blame for this did not lie with citizens, who were driven to desperate self-help measures, but with government officials, who allow the streets to devolve into anarchy every time six inches fall from the heavens. Yet we have no place to direct our anger about substandard snow removal, except toward some unknown apparatchik who runs the local transportation department. Elected positions for streets and sanitation would permit the public to express its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with services. While few of us follow the work of local representatives, almost all of us are intimately familiar with the performance of the street and sanitation directors.

If these positions were subjected to two-year elected terms, citizens would be able to change snow removal policies by changing directors. This would engender competition among candidates to identify problems and propose solutions. It also wouldn’t let mayors and county executives off the hook for feeble snow removal efforts: If elected street or sanitation officials were shortchanged by a county council or a mayor, they would have every incentive to make the true source of the disaster known.

When James Madison and his colleagues were crafting our democratic system, it is doubtful that they saw direct election as a key to snow removal. However, as I sat captive in my home, it seemed clear that more democracy in our government would mean less snow on our streets.

LOAD-DATE: February 23, 2003