Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Is it the role of police to enforce shoveling ordinance?

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Greg Peck
Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, The Gazette ran a letter to the editor from a Janesville resident who likes to walk each day and is frustrated by the lack of compliance with the city ordinance requiring residents to clear their sidewalks within 12 hours of a snowfall. He suggested police should ticket such scofflaws.

Last week we fielded a similar Sound Off call.

“This is a message for the new city manager,” the caller stated. “Being that now you are on the taxpayers' payroll, I'd like to have you look into the city ordinance of people removing the snow and ice from their sidewalk in the allotted time that it says. We have policemen cruising all these neighborhoods and see the snow has been piled up there for several snowfalls, but yet they will not get out of their cruiser. I know it's cold, but they still need to get out of their cruiser, start writing tickets and guess what—the sidewalks will start getting shoveled. The city wants people to have sidewalks for the safety of the people walking, but that defeats the whole purpose by leaving ice and snow build up where people fall on them. Let's get with the program.”

Editor Scott Angus asked me if the police really have the authority to write tickets for violators. Good question.

In 2010, the city council altered Janesville's enforcement procedures to get compliance more quickly. But those procedures still don't involve police. The council directed that if someone complains to the city, an inspector goes and knocks. If no one answers, the city staffer leaves a door-hanger notice. A city crew or private contractor will shovel 24 hours later, and that service will cost the property owner a minimum of $124.

But could a police officer who sees a sidewalk that has gone unshoveled for days simply get out and write a ticket? I talked last week with John Whitcomb, public works director, and he thought technically, yes. But Deputy Police Chief Dan Davis, in charge with Police Chief Dave Moore out of the office, left me a voice mail stating residents with such suggestions are “uninformed” of procedures that involve routing complaints through the city services department. I then decided not to use the Sound Off comment.

On Monday, I posed the question to Moore, and he sent me this email:

“The short answer is that we could have officers issuing citations for snow-covered sidewalks. Officers currently do not perform this duty as the city has a different process for addressing the issue. To have officers issue citations would involve a larger discussion with city administration and perhaps city council. Very quickly the discussion would involve the importance of the issue, the effective and efficient method to address the issue and, then, what do we want our police officers to do—issue citations for snow-covered sidewalks or should they be performing other duties?”

As a backdrop to this question, Moore noted that the city has fewer police officers than it has had for many years. “If we place this responsibility on police officers, it will reduce their availability for other duties,” he wrote.

So there you have it. Tired of seeing a sidewalk left unshoveled for days on end? Absent a new directive from the city council, don't expect a patrol officer to write a ticket. Instead, call 608-755-3110 to register a complaint and start the city's enforcement procedure.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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