Memo on city’s snow response should be taken with a little salt

This week there is a cold bite in the air in Vancouver, and not only because of another half-cocked executive order out of the Trump White House. An arctic front has pushed its way back over the city with some meteorologists predicting snow flurries. It is the kind of déjà vu that should cause dread at city hall, given our nasty experience so far this winter.

Many of us might have missed the recent memo to council released by city staff assessing the city’s snow response. You might be interested in their verdict on how things went.

Apparently, just fine.

Yes, you heard that right. The City of Vancouver did a fantastic job in response to the snow and icy conditions that hobbled many neighbourhoods for weeks on end.

The memo, titled “Snow Fight 2016/17” (scanned for some reason not clear to me, which makes the document harder to find through online searches), explains that the city takes snow removal “seriously” and has a “comprehensive” snow response plan in place.

But seriously, folks, is it your impression that the city took the fight to Jack Frost over the holiday period?

The memo says that the city’s fleet has “more than 40 trucks.” A tweet from the mayor’s office during the big dump on New Year’s Eve said just 20 salter/plows were mobilized – or, under half the fleet.

“Engineering staff continually monitor weather forecasts to ensure an appropriate response,” claims the memo. Twenty years ago this might have been quite an undertaking. Today, I have three apps alone on my smartphone that give me radar reports in real time, hourly temperature patterns and precipitation forecasts.

Many of us knew in advance that snow was coming when it did, so how come the city did not?

The staff memo goes on at some length on the subject of salt. “At no time did the city run out of sand and salt supply,” they write.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart

The Coquitlam mayor tweeted a photo of himself guarding his city’s salt pile against Vancouver taking it away. It was a light moment, but there is little doubt Vancouver was scrambling to replace depleted salt supplies.

We also heard wild stories about people stealing sand from Vancouver beaches, or bags of salt selling for $80 on Craigslist. Who can forget, however, the rage at fire stations where piles of free salt were dumped and quickly snatched by residents? The memo describes those moments as merely “chaotic behaviour from a small number of residents.”

In other words, “move along, nothing to see here.”

When it came to missed waste and recycling pickups across the city, the memo downplays the impact, claiming “just under two per cent” had no pickup for a month, and up to 12,000 households had one missed pickup.

Though the memo resists pointing a finger of blame at MMBC, the contracted services company responsible for the lack of recycling pickup during the cold snap, Coun. Andrea Reimer blamed the provincial government through her Twitter account for privatizing collection. In reality, the city had a choice on whether or not to privatize collection.

The city deserves some credit for communicating weather warnings more often, says the memo. Puzzlingly, none of Vision’s councillors on Twitter — Deal, Reimer and Louie — saw fit to also communicate information that could have helped the public during the snow crisis. Reimer retweeted the City of Vancouver once in December, but otherwise from their perspective it was as though the snow and ice had no impact on citizens.

The memo, signed by general manager of engineering services Jerry Dobrovolny, lauds staff’s “extraordinary effort” and the fact they followed directives put in place after the 2008 and 2012 snow response failures. The “improvement” identified apparently from this whole mess — the city bought additional salt spreaders.

If this were a private company, what is the likelihood you could shrug off the disastrous snow response as the city has? Just like with past major snow events, or even the Stanley Cup Riot, no one at city hall is being held accountable, politically or otherwise.

This, perhaps, is the greatest failure of all.

– published originally at Vancouver Courier newspaper