“The reality is, Your Worship, and you’ve said time and time again, if it takes $15 million to keep the city free of snow, we’ll spend what it takes.”
— Deputy Mayor Dennis O’Keefe to Mayor Andy Wells, Jan. 21, 2008
I regret to inform His Worship that he could end up paying more than that.
And by “he,” I mean “we” — the taxpayers.
You see, despite the letters to the editor, the angry tweets on Twitter, the Facebook groups, the protests, the radio feedback complaints, pointed editorials and columns, the City of St. John’s is still not getting the message.
And the message is this:
Every winter’s day in this city, a pedestrian comes close to slipping under the wheels of a car. Every day, a motorist turns a corner and nearly mows down someone walking in the street.
One of these days, the worst-case scenario will no longer be a scenario.
I wrote those lines three years ago and the worst-case scenario may be closer than we think.
It is perilous to be a winter pedestrian in this city. That is a fact.
Here are some other facts:
In Oakville and London, Ont. — larger cities than this one, both of them — sidewalks are cleared of snow. Period. It’s city policy.
“Our mission is to provide safe roads and sidewalks during the winter season at an affordable price,” states the City of London’s website.
“The main goal of the (Winter Maintenance Program) is to provide the highest degree of vehicle and pedestrian mobility possible during inclement climate conditions experienced by London. …”
Wow — striving for pedestrian mobility in winter. What a concept. I wonder how the guy I dodged on Columbus Drive Tuesday morning during rush-hour traffic would feel about that.
Our ‘good policy’
In St. John’s, main roads near schools and hospitals are cleared first after a snowfall, and then streets with a “high volume” of pedestrian traffic are done. The sidewalks on many other streets are not done at all.
In fact, our newsroom received a call from a frustrated resident on Tuesday whose street had not even been plowed at that point.
I’m not blaming city crews for this; they carry out snowclearing in priority order as they are directed to do, and they do the best they can. It’s not the snowplow operators who determine how your tax dollars are spent.
Mayor Dennis O’Keefe told CBC Radio recently, “The policy is a good policy.”
But here’s another fact: Canadian cities that receive significant amounts of snow are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibility to keep streets safe — and that includes for pedestrians, not just motorists.
The city of Brantford, Ont., (population 93,000) is considering taking over the responsibility for clearing all of its sidewalks in order to ensure the job is done properly.
“We need to reduce accidents and injuries, not just for the safety of our residents but for the sake of our city’s finances,” Coun. David Neumann was quoted as saying in The Brantford Expositor on Feb. 9.
“There may come a time when we will have to consider clearing the sidewalks ourselves, as is done in cities like London and Oakville. I know there is a cost, but we have to pay rising costs for not addressing this.”
What are the rising costs he’s talking about?
Why, lawsuits, of course.
Are you listening, Mayor O’Keefe?
And here’s another fact: expect the notion of municipal culpability to raise its nasty little head during the court case for the man charged in the horrible hit-and-run incident on Topsail Road recently when two women were struck and critically injured as they walked in the road.
No one is saying that was the city’s fault, but you can bet the accused’s lawyer took quick note of the fact that the sidewalks on Topsail Road were snow-covered at the time.
And if the message is still not getting through, perhaps the mayor might look online for a copy of a Toronto Sun article from Sept. 28, 2010, when the city of Toronto was found “grossly negligent” in not clearing a laneway where a pedestrian slipped, fell and was injured in 1999.
The city appealed the ruling and lost.
“During the case,” reporter Jonathan Jenkins wrote in The Sun, “(lawyer Alan) Preyra successfully argued the city was responsible for keeping lanes clear of snow in the same way it must keep roads and sidewalks clear. The judge agreed and awarded his client $34,000.”
That’s despite the fact that Toronto has a bylaw which says residents have to clear the sidewalks in front of their houses or pay a fine.
As the lawyer who won the case noted, “That just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.”
Clearly the justice system agrees.
And, the lawyer added, “The ramifications of this — for cities across Canada — are huge.”
So, as it stands, St. John’s can either come up with the money to clear all streets and sidewalks in a timely manner, or it can wait for the lawsuits to start filing in.
Either way, we’ll pay, but surely it’d be less painful for all concerned to make citizens’ safety Priority No. 1.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.