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Ward 3 Counmcilmember Mary M. Cheh has joined with Ward 6 Councilmember and public works committee Chairman Tommy Wells to beef up the District’s current, old law governing citizen responsibility for removing snow and ice from public sidewalks.

Their introduced bill, the “Winter Sidewalk Safety Amendment Act of 2011,” which has been referred to Wells’ Committee on Public Works, establishes a specific schedule of fines for non-compliance in contrast with existing law which provides only that the District is “authorized to sue for and recover [costs for removing snow and ice] . . . with a penalty not exceeding $25 for each offense.” The Wells-Cheh bill, however, provides for specific fines of $25 (instead of “not exceeding”), as well as — and this is completely new — “not less than $250” for businesses.

The bill also changes the mechanism for recovering costs and collecting fines. Under the existing law, the mechanism for collecting is limited to filing a lawsuit; now, however, ticket-writing authority would be in the hands of the public works and police departments. Given the penchant for the city’s ticket writers to so often write tickets as if there is no tomorrow, there should be real concern as to whether the new implementing rules will be written with clarity and precision and whether personnel will be properly trained. As presently written, the bill’s rulemaking provision is bare-bones, stating only that “The Mayor shall issues [sic] rules to implement the provisions of this Act.” The Council should consider incorporating more specific language to ensure that the rulemaking bureaucrats won’t devise schemes that go beyond the actual intent of the enacted statute.

It should be noted that this amending bill does not change the language of the existing statute which states that “every person, partnership, corporation [and other entities] in charge or control of any building or lot of land . . . fronting or abutting on a paved sidewalk, whether as owner, tenant, occupant, lessee, or otherwise, within the first 8 hours of daylight after the ceasing to fall of any snow or sleet, to remove and clear away, or cause to be removed and cleared away, such snow or sleet from so much of said sidewalk as is in front of or abuts on said building or lot of land. [Italics ours.]

While a fine of $25 issued to a homeowner for failing to clear an abutting sidewalk does not seem at all unreasonable or burdensome, we urge that when this bill comes before the full Council the members give careful thought to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

We were impressed by a recent statement issued by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser in which she cautioned that the Council “must be careful that any amendments to current law are tailored to address the realities of life in the District following a snow storm.” She goes on to state that she “cannot support a law that does not provide exceptions for . . . senior citizens, the disabled, or those that are away from home. Any change to current law must provide adequate time for residents and businesses to clear their sidewalks, issues of liability and enforcement authority must be clearly explained, and fines must be reasonably related to the homeowner’s ability to shovel.”

And while the council member does refer to those who “are away from home,” we assume she is, like us, thinking about residents who, having left their houses at eight in the morning to go to work shortly before the snow will have stopped would be in trouble because the eight hour window of opportunity to avoid a fine will have closed two or three hours before they would be returning from work. Will the Council require that all these people skip out early, risking employer anger and/or losing pay? What about those who are elderly or frail who cannot shovel on their own, or even relatively healthy persons who nevertheless have heart conditions and are warned against shoveling snow because of the risk of heart attack, will council members think about the difficulty in finding somebody — either for pay or a volunteer — to shovel for them at a time when such persons are likely to be occupied many others. Eight hours in residential neighborhoods is far too restrictive.