Dixon gives storm response a `B-plus'

Mayor's first snowstorm is fraught with political opportunity, danger

February 15, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Facing the first major storm of her administration yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said she thought the city did a good job clearing the streets before the morning commute, but one of her leading opponents, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., called the effort inadequate.

Snowstorms pose a challenge for all local government leaders, but for Dixon - who is facing an election in seven months - every inch that falls on sidewalks and streets is a potential political liability. Aside from trash pickup, a city administration's effort to clean streets after a storm is the most tangible interaction many voters have with City Hall all year.

Dixon arrived at the city's emergency operations center about 10 a.m. - shortly after the city's Board of Estimates meeting adjourned - and received a briefing from transportation and public safety officials. More than 140 salt and plow trucks were deployed Tuesday night, working 12-hour shifts, and the city put down 8,231 tons of salt, she was told.

"All night there was nothing but ice that came down, so the focus was to get the trucks out to salt constantly on the main streets and the side streets," Dixon said at a morning news conference after the briefing. "Now, since the salt has broken up the ice, we're now out clearing that."

Asked to grade the city's performance, Dixon said she thought her administration deserved a "B-plus."

But Mitchell, whose district includes downtown and residential neighborhoods such as Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill and a small portion of Federal Hill, said streets were largely impassable during the early morning yesterday. He argued that Dixon should have spent more time at the city's operations center supervising the effort.

"We knew about this snowstorm a week ahead of time," said Mitchell, who added that he received a busy signal when calling the city's 311 call center. "I think they could have done better, considering the amount of time that we knew that this storm was coming."

Dixon, a former City Council president who became the city's 48th mayor last month when Martin O'Malley became governor, will likely face a bevy of candidates in the Sept. 11 primary. Several - including Mitchell and Del. Jill P. Carter - have filed to run and others, including Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., Andrey Bundley, A. Robert Kaufman and Phillip Brown, have said they will run.

Past snowstorms have destroyed careers in local government, most famously in Chicago. Jane Byrne was elected mayor there in 1979 after her predecessor, Michael A. Bilandic, was perceived to have botched the cleanup of a major blizzard that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on the city, making some streets impassable for days.

Locally, former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden was criticized for his handling of a blizzard in March 1993 that dropped 9 to 14 inches of snow. Many believe the county's response was hampered by earlier budget cuts that forced the county to lay off several experienced plow supervisors.

In those cases, snow was still clinging to streets days after it fell, delaying emergency vehicles and forcing businesses to remain closed long after the storm passed. Yesterday's storm, on the other hand, was not nearly as severe. Most primary roads were clear down to the pavement by yesterday afternoon and few major accidents were reported within the city.

"It seems to be fine. I haven't seen any complaints and nothing went drastically wrong," said Tim Wilson, first vice president of the Ednor Gardens-Lakeside Civic Association, whose boundaries encompass The Alameda, Loch Raven Boulevard, 33rd Street and Hillen Road. "Things are getting back to normal."

Dixon has not made any major changes to the Department of Transportation in the past month. She retained O'Malley's transportation director, Alfred H. Foxx, and the budget that sets aside money for this winter's snow removal was crafted by the O'Malley administration.

When Dixon looked out her window in West Baltimore early yesterday morning, she said, she was initially concerned by the slush she saw in the street. But Foxx said the city prepares for an ice storm by salting more heavily than plowing, an effort that keeps the road from freezing but that also produces more slush.

The city budgeted about $3.5 million for snow removal this winter and has only about $300,000 left. Officials said that yesterday's cleanup cost a little more than $700,000. Meanwhile, the city has only about 3,800 tons of salt remaining - significantly lower than the typical stockpile of about 17,000 tons - but Foxx said about 5,200 tons are on the way.

"We're building our stockpiles up as quickly as possible," Foxx said. "The next event may be a couple of days from now, so I want to make sure I have as much salt on hand as possible."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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