The blizzard that dropped more than two feet of snow on Martha’s Vineyard two weeks ago also dumped a truckload of complaints about snow removal on Tisbury town officials — complaints unusual in their number and in their vehemence.
While the storm was an immense challenge for state and local highway crews, and every town received complaints, Tisbury selectmen and department of public works (DPW) commissioners were inundated with a storm of criticism about the way the town cleared, or didn’t clear, the snow; about how town officials communicated, or didn’t communicate, with residents; and about the lack of a plan or priorities, including keeping main roads and emergency facilities clear for first responders.
Town department heads met Monday to address problems, and the DPW director fielded complaints at a Monday-evening meeting of the board of public works.
On Tuesday, Jan. 27, at the height of the storm, a Tisbury ambulance headed out to respond to an emergency. The ambulance got stuck on Franklin Street, one of the town’s main roads, according to Fire Chief John Schilling. Another ambulance responded. It got stuck a block from the Emergency Services Building. Then a DPW front-end loader arrived, and towed the ambulance the rest of the way.
“It was very challenging, there was no question about it,” Chief Schilling said. “Emergency response was difficult.”
Just getting out of the Emergency Services Facility was difficult. The first responders cleared the area in front of the truck bays by hand, working around the clock.
“We had crews rotating through the night shoveling in front of the bays,” Chief Schilling said. “EMS and firefighters were in the building all night. When the ambulance rolled on the call, we sent two trucks along with the ambulance.”
According to police, even snowplows got stuck in the storm, and needed assistance to get out.
While many people were willing to forgive the DPW for its response during the fierce snowstorm, others were unhappy that streets were all but impassable long after the snow stopped falling and parking and driving bans were lifted.
On Thursday, Jan. 29, emergency dispatchers broadcast an advisory, warning emergency vehicles to avoid Main Street in Tisbury. A mound of snow three feet high divided Main Street into two narrow, slush-filled lanes. Snow removal equipment was diverted to pull out stuck vehicles. Main Street was closed to traffic for several hours at a time on Thursday and again on Friday, while DPW crews cleared the snow.
Stranded residents who called the DPW garage on Friday morning were greeted with a recorded message that the department’s mailbox was full, and were unable to leave a message.
Questions and complaints
Some complaints were aired at the board of public works meeting Monday evening.
“You are supposed to work together with all departments,” said Charles Cournoyer in comments directed at DPW director Glenn Mauk. Mr. Cournoyer, who lives on Colonial Drive, is a retired snowplow driver who worked for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “The National Weather Service warned us days before the storm. The DPW had ample time to prepare. A lot of things aren’t getting done, and I would like to know why.”
Mr. Mauk, who began his tenure as department head on Dec. 16, 2013, conceded that planning was inadequate. He also said that some DPW employees could not get to work, and one had a medical issue, so the department was left understaffed. He forcefully rejected Mr. Cournoyer’s assertion that the DPW refused offers of help from private contractors.
“This suggestion that we turned away private contractors that came to help, that’s flat-out wrong,” Mr. Mauk said. “I agree with him that there is not a plan in place to bring in additional forces, shovelers, drivers, people who can drive our trucks. My limited time here has identified many different areas where we have a lack of planning. What we found by the second day was the staff was down three or four people.”
Board of public works commissioners disagreed over the department’s performance during the storm. “We owe you, and everybody else in this town, an apology,” said commissioner Jeff Kristal, a former selectman, speaking to Mr. Cournoyer. “We failed. We failed with a plan, we failed with communicating the plan. It’s unacceptable that we don’t take care of town buildings.”
Commissioner John Thayer, who chairs the board, said people have unrealistic expectations about the town’s ability to respond to an unusually difficult storm. “The reason is limited staff, time, and the size of [the storm],” Mr. Thayer said. “I’m not going to apologize for us needing an extra day to clean up after a 27-inch snowstorm. There is this perception of the DPW that you can call 24 hours a day and this place is staffed. Absolutely nobody wants to accept the limitations of this.”
Since Mr. Mauk began as director, union employees of the DPW have filed 15 separate grievances charging violations of the union contract. Town administrator Jay Grande said he does not believe the strained relations within the department impacted the DPW’s response to the storm.
“There were clearly areas that needed to be improved and addressed, which did not indicate to me that there were any issues relating to the personnel and the director that impacted the response,” Mr. Grande said Wednesday. “I don’t think the performance had anything to do with personnel. I think they all tried as best they could.”
Ken Maciel, who heads the union, also said the grievances played no part in the response of DPW employees. “Not at all,” Mr. Maciel said. “We have a job to do, and even though we don’t agree with what [Mr. Mauk is] doing, we all had a job to do and we did it to the best of our ability. We did the best we could with what equipment we had. We needed extra help.”
Town officials say misinformation contributed to the number of complaints they fielded, and some of them were compounded by social media conversations. Following the board of public works meeting Monday evening, Mr. Mauk made clear that the town is responsible for snow removal on private roads, in accordance with a 1977 vote of the town meeting. What many people didn’t understand, he said, was that some roads are higher priorities. Main town-owned roads are cleared first, then secondary roads, then private roads. He said there are exceptions for private roads that are so poorly maintained that plow drivers cannot safely or adequately plow them.
Several people interviewed for this article, however, said they were told by DPW employees that the town was not responsible for plowing private roads.
The official Tisbury town web site is also unclear about the policy, stating, “The Tisbury Department of Public Works maintains all Town roads and sidewalks, to include pothole repair, sidewalk construction and repair, road resurfacing, and snow removal. Private roads are not part of our responsibility, except for possible emergency snow removal.”
Another common point of misunderstanding involves the structure of town government, in which the elected board of public works is independent of the board of selectmen.
In 1989, by special act of the Massachusetts legislature, the town consolidated several departments into a department of public works, governed by a five-member board. Originally, the commissioners were appointed, but in 1991, the town began electing the commissioners at-large.
Selectman Melinda Loberg said selectmen got many calls from residents.
“Every time someone has called me to talk about the snowplowing and the DPW, they have been quite surprised to learn that the DPW has been a totally independent board, and selectmen don’t have control over the DPW, what it does, who it hires,” said Ms. Loberg.
She said town meeting voters authorized funds to hire a consultant who will examine the structure of town government, action spurred in part by a growing sentiment to reorganize town departments: “There’s more of a sentiment for it now than there has been in a while.”
The Tisbury planning board launched a “visioning” exercise last fall, to determine, in part, how residents want their government to function. “One of the major feedbacks we got from the visioning process so far is that government isn’t well organized and doesn’t function as a unit,” Ms. Loberg said. “This is the perception.”
Road to improvement
On Monday, town officials began planning for the next storm, and trying to apply the lessons learned in the January blizzard. Department heads met with town administrator John “Jay” Grande, and Lt. Eerik Meisner, who is the town’s emergency management director.
“All department heads agreed that the response could have been better,” Lt. Meisner wrote in a debriefing report for the board of selectmen. “The issues which were brought to the forefront were the need for better communications via the radio system for police, fire, and public works. The DPW will work with the fire department to improve capability regarding radio usage and monitoring. Other issues included the necessity to keep emergency services buildings such as the police department and the fire department clear of snow in order to allow the clear passage of emergency vehicles.”
Lt. Meisner wrote that the town will try to preposition snow-clearing equipment, including snow blowers, in advance of winter storms. He said the town departments will work to identify vehicles parked in violation of parking bans.
“During this storm, several vehicles were not towed, and hampered snow removal in certain areas,” Lt. Meisner wrote in his report. The department heads also agreed that the DPW will provide a list of personnel assigned to snow removal, and a prioritized list of routes that need to be cleared for emergency vehicles.