Mitchell residents urge city leaders to improve snow removal process, starting with better communication
"If we show we are complacent with areas like this that clearly need addressing, we’re not improving as a city,” Mitchell Republic Editor Luke Hagen said during the city council meeting discussion.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mitchell Republic Editor Luke Hagen did not contribute to the editing of this story due to his involvement in the discussion.
MITCHELL — The city’s snow removal process was under the microscope during Monday’s Mitchell City Council meeting, as residents pitched suggestions on ways it could improve.
Better communication throughout snow removal work emerged as a key suggestion from the few residents who spoke at the meeting.
Among the residents who took part in the discussion at Monday’s meeting was Mitchell Republic Editor Luke Hagen, who wrote an opinion column roughly a week after the early January blizzard regarding the city’s snow removal processes in the days following the two-day winter storm that brought 23 inches of snow. Two city council members responded to Hagen’s column during the Jan. 17 meeting by disputing Hagen’s take on the snow cleanup and requested to hold a public discussion that took place Monday.
“My main concern over this whole issue hinges on the poor communication between the city and the residents. Unless specifically calling and asking, city residents — more than a week after the storm — were unaware when, or if, residential streets would be cleaned curb to curb. That is unacceptable,” Hagen said. “Council members, did you look out your window at the street and wonder what the process would be?”
Communication throughout the early January blizzard was also an issue for John Gard, a Mitchell resident, who said a city snow plow operator informed him of information he sought when a call to a city department went unanswered.
Gard said snow along the street near his mailbox resulted in two notices from the post office, asking him to remove it to allow postal workers the ability to deliver his mail.
“On Saturday, the snowplow operator came by and removed much of the snow by my mailbox area. We talked, and he said the reason he couldn’t get closer to my mailbox was because some of the tree branches on my boulevard were causing issues with his ability to get closer. I thanked him for making me aware of the situation as this was the first time this had been brought to my attention,” Gard said. “Bottom line, I think the key word here is communication.”
In response to the commentary on communication efforts, McCardle highlighted that the city’s website issues alerts about the street cleanup schedules. McCardle encouraged all residents to sign up through the city’s website to receive updates in the future, and City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein gave residents a tutorial on how to sign up for city alerts.
As of Tuesday, there were 783 residents signed up for the city's snow removal alerts, according to city data. Ellwein encouraged residents to sign up to receive notifications via the city's website, which is free.
Among the suggestions Hagen pitched to city leaders were appointing a city official to communicate the snow removal plans with residents and local media and create a dedicated snow removal webpage. In addition, he suggested taking input from on-the-ground workers about ways the process could be enhanced to avoid long shifts and opening bids for local contractors that could serve as a snow removal contingency team when an abnormally large amount of snow falls on Mitchell.
“We can’t do anything anymore about how it was handled. What can be done is some self-reflection and looking for areas to improve. As city leaders, I’d hope you would poke holes in your current policies and procedures rather than saying this storm was an anomaly. If we show we are complacent with areas like this that clearly need addressing, we’re not improving as a city,” Hagen said.
Public Works Director Joe Schroeder joined the discussion and highlighted the challenges that crews were up against while clearing streets during the Jan. 2-3 blizzard and the recent snowfalls since.
Schroeder said the wear-and-tear from crews handling the 23 inches of snow caused several key pieces of equipment to break down amid the cleanup efforts. The strong winds that came with the early January blizzard prompted city officials to pull crews from plowing due to visibility issues and safety concerns, he said.
“I think the longest we went was two hours. We staffed emergency vehicle support for the EMS to get around during the blizzard,” Schroeder said, noting a couple crew members were new to the snow removal team. “We were down two plow trucks and two blowers. When you have to move that much snow, it’s harder on the equipment.”
Schroeder broke down why the city prioritizes east and west streets before some other streets, which he said is required by city ordinance to provide more access to the hospital in case of emergencies. He also explained why city lots are cleared as early as possible following snowfall events.
“It allows residents a place to park for District A — downtown area — snow removal. We also do it to be predictable. We want residents to know east to west will be cleared first to get their vehicles off the streets,” he said.
Private trucks were also hired to assist with the city in the days following the snow storm. According to Schroeder, contracted trucks that haul snow for the city cost roughly $150 to $200 per hour. Schroeder said the Public Works Department is currently cross-training other city staff members who have a commercial driver's license — a move that would allow more personnel to tackle snow removal.
Council member Jeff Smith capped off the discussion by saying the “vast majority” of feedback he received from residents on the city’s performance during the latest winter weather events was good.
“Are there things we can learn? Obviously,” Smith said. “I think they did a tremendous job under these circumstances.”