SNOW JOB (38389)

“People just stayed out there too long, frankly,” said John Doherty, New York City’s sanitation commissioner, on Tuesday. Doherty, like many in New York City government in the past week, seemed to be looking for something to blame, looking for something to explain to fallout from a post-Christmas blizzard that essentially shut down the five boroughs for a day.

Doherty attempted to lay blame on citizens who thought they could get home from post-Christmas shopping on Dec. 26 in time to avoid the beginning of the storm. He, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also blamed citizens for shoveling snow off their sidewalks and into streets that had already been plowed.

“When I go through my reports on the night of [Dec.] 26, there were reports of a lot of cars out on the streets,” said Doherty. “This snowstorm did not allow us to go back into the secondary streets like we normally do until later in the storm. Even on the primary [streets] we found that cars were abandoned, people were having accidents and cars were stopping [in the middle of the street] to clean ice off the windshield. We didn’t have to face these problems during the storm in ’96.”

Tell that to the millions of New Yorkers who lived through the famous blizzard of ’96 and feel like they didn’t experience nearly the number of problems they did during the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Last week’s snowstorm led to many unplowed streets in the five boroughs, and shut down subways and Long Island Railroad service, featuring passengers stuck on an A train for up to eight hours due to snow drifts on the third rail of the Broad Channel and Aqueduct train stops in Queens. Straphangers spent much of their time on the train without food, water, heat or access to a restroom. Several of them said that they intend to file a lawsuit.

Bloomberg said after the storm last Tuesday that “the snow did not stop falling until 9:30 yesterday morning…When the storm occurs over the weekend, it’s easier to deal with. The NYPD-authorized tow trucks have removed 1,000 vehicles from the Van Wyck, Gowanus and Cross Bronx expressways alone.”

But some residents are pointing towards news issued by New York City Councilman Dan Halloran of Queens. According to Halloran, several employees from the Department of Sanitation came to his office to report an apparent order to go slow on plowing the city’s streets during the storm and the storm’s aftermath. They said that the order came from a few supervisors who were allegedly upset over the mayor’s new budget, which contained proposed action to demote them from their current position. While some conservative pundits have jumped on the bandwagon to pin the blame specifically on unions, when contacted by the AmNews, Halloran’s people emphasized that the “go slow” approach was not representative of all sanitation workers.

“The councilman made it very clear that the large majority of sanitation workers work very hard and ought to be commended,” said a spokesperson for Halloran. “The problem is just a few bad apples who happen to be demoted under the mayor’s new budget. They weren’t a majority of the workers, but there were some supervisors who instructed their workers to do their slowdown. But a small number of people doing it makes a huge difference. It was regular sanitation workers, men on the street, who approached the councilman and wanted it to be stopped. The proof is in the pudding.”

Issues in Staten Island could be rated as being by far the worst in the city, as the blizzard left many people snowed in on the island for days. City Councilwoman Debi Rose said that she was not able to get out of her own home for three days after the blizzard. She said Staten Islanders were also not informed that the Verrazano Bridge was closed, leading many people to miss work for days and lose pay.

“We really felt what it was like to be the forgotten borough,” Rose said. “People were snowed in for days. I didn’t get out until Thursday…By no stretch of the imagination were all of our streets clear.”

Rose has been proactive in getting feedback from her constituents on how the city performed after the blizzard. Her office set up an online survey to get an idea of how bad things were. She said that the people deserve answers so that a similar scenario doesn’t happen again.

“There’s no excuse for this happening,” she said. “I don’t anticipate having this experience again. The mayor would be crazy to have a recurrence. Somebody is going to have to answer to why this was allowed to happen.”

But it now looks like the investigation into the “go slow” has made its way up the government chain. Federal prosecutors are now looking into claims of a deliberate slowdown during the blizzard recovery process. But the inquiry, coming from the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, is only preliminary.

When the AmNews contacted the Sanitation Officers Association (Local 444 SEIU), we were told that we’d receive a response to news of the investigations once their spokesperson made it back from days filled with meetings. As of press time, the AmNews was still waiting for a response. Through other media outlets, however, union leaders denounced and condemned claims of a “go slow,” and said that reduced manpower had contributed to the slow recovery effort by the Department of Sanitation and the city at large.

But on the Sanitation Officers Association website, there’s no doubt where the union’s focus lies.

“[President] Joseph Mannion has been in talks with the Office of Labor Relations and will continue to try to work out a means to retain all officers,” read one of the featured statements on the website’s home page. “While the city may not be willing to state this, we know getting supervisor levels and all employee levels to the place they need to be is in the best interest of the work force and most importantly the public.”

Reports have also surfaced that little over 600 sanitation employees called out from work under their supervisors’ orders. Doherty said that 600 callouts were a normal rate, and even on the one day they did receive more than 600 callouts, they made up for it when some of those callouts came to work later on that night. But with reports of the city not calling for outside help until about 30 hours after the National Weather Service had raised the winter storm warning into a winter storm watch (not to mention 933 complaints fielded between 9 a.m. on Dec. 27 and 5 p.m. on Dec. 29), some local officials have derided Bloomberg and the city for pouring out excuses to explain a lack of immediate response.

“It is unacceptable that Mayor Bloomberg did not issue a citywide snow emergency on Saturday, December 25, after the National Weather Service forecasted a blizzard with up to 14 inches of snow,” said Councilman Robert Jackson. “The administration’s failure to decisively act crippled the city for an entire week, left police, fire and ambulance vehicles unable to reach people for hours on end, and resulted in the suspension of garbage and recycling pickups, alternate side of the street parking regulations and parking meters.”

In response to Halloran’s comments, the Department of Investigation issued formal statement regarding the investigation, which read: “DOI has been working 24/7 on this investigation, and we continue to pursue leads about potential deliberate wrongdoing by action or inaction relating to the snowstorm. DOI is investigating any evidence of intentional acts by commission or omission, and evidence of encouraging, suggesting or participating in a work slowdown.” The DOI urged city employees especially to come forward with any evidence and promised that all information would be kept confidential.

But some of that information might get out sooner than expected. One lawyer, Aymen Aboushi, is getting ready to sue the Metropolitan Transit Authority over the seven-to-eight hour shutdown of the A train during the blizzard. Several straphangers have signed onto the suit and Aboushi, along with the Aboushi Law Firm, is encouraging others to do so as well.

During Tuesday’s news conference, one reporter asked Doherty, “Does the name John Lindsay mean anything to you?” Doherty, along with Bloomberg and many others, is finding out the meaning right now.