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City plow drivers to be held accountable

Public works chief cites improved effort

Boston Public Works Commissioner Joseph F. Casazza, pledging that Boston streets will be cleared better than they were after the northeaster of Dec. 6-7, told city councilors yesterday that he will beef up penalties for snowplow operators who fail to live up to the terms of their contracts.

 

Facing harsh criticism from residents and elected officials, Casazza also said he would explore asking the contractors to carry global positioning satellite phones to keep better track of them during storms.

A similar proposal by state officials angered many plow drivers.

Casazza took responsibility for underestimating the storm, which dumped 24 inches of snow in some neighborhoods, and said it was one of the worst he had seen in 35 years on the job. Casazza delayed deploying his full fleet of snowplows and drivers, and crews took days to clear roads in parts of West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain.

Residents flooded City Hall with calls last week, and Councilor Maura Hennigan said that she would give the city an "F for performance."

Acknowledging the uproar, Casazza blamed snowplow operators for many of the problems.

During an appearance in City Council chambers, he said he is assigning extra contractors to some neighborhoods and reprimanding those who did not meet expectations. Casazza said that snowplow operators currently face minimal penalties for poor performance.

In some instances, the city could cancel its guarantee of a plower's insurance, city officials said, but that is rarely done.

"This is escalating," Casazza said. "There has to be a penalty. It doesn't exist today, but there will be one. I am going to talk to everyone and make sure they know what the ground rules are."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Casazza spent Sunday night driving around city neighborhoods to make sure plowing expectations were met during the latest storm, which dumped less than 5 inches of snow before turning to rain.

"They did a fine job last night," Menino said yesterday. "We had a lot of plows out there doing their job. This one went well. Let's see what happens the next time."

Though residents directed harsh criticism at Casazza and Menino after the Dec. 6-7 storm, complaints were few in the wake of the latest snowfall. Councilor John Tobin, who fielded dozens of angry calls during the first storm, said that this time around, he saw snowplow operators getting ready before the first flake fell.

"The snowplowing was excellent," he said. "This time, they were proactive."

National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Jackson said most communities in the eastern half of the state picked up heavy snow on Sunday that "quickly turned to rain and sleet and freezing rain and slush," a combination that made for a messy morning commute yesterday.

State Police reported "countless" spinouts and minor crashes, mostly in the northern reaches of Greater Boston, though none with serious injuries.

The tone of yesterday's City Council hearing remained largely deferential, with councilors politely asking Casazza to explain his decision to delay dispatching his full fleet of plows.

Casazza at times went on the offensive, saying that the city did a good job overall. He reiterated his defense that forecasters predicted a lull in the storm for much of the day on Saturday and said he did not want to tire out the plowers too soon.

"Why should I bring them in to fight the big fight and just tire them out?" he said. "I think that was a logical decision."

In the aftermath of the storm, the public works chief summoned contractor Albert Todesca for a face-to-face meeting, fuming that Todesca did not bring all of his equipment to plow the snow in Hyde Park, Roslindale, and West Roxbury.

But yesterday Todesca said he would support any move to increase penalties on errant contractors.

"Basically, I think we should be held accountable," he said. "It is a public service."

Hennigan, who has publicly questioned the mayor's handling of the storm, asked whether the city would add more phone lines or operators to its City Hall hot lines, saying many residents with complaints were unable to get through.

Michael Kineavy, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, said he was not aware of residents getting a busy signal when they called City Hall.

Jackson, the meteorologist, said another storm is expected tomorrow, this one bringing rain and strong winds. (Yesterday's wind gusts reached 40 miles per hour in some areas, typical for this time of year, he said.)

Last weekend's storm left more than a foot of snow in the western part of the state, where Berkshire District Attorney Gerard Downing died after suffering an apparent heart attack while shoveling.

Downing, 52, collapsed around 6:30 a.m. yesterday in his driveway and was taken to Berkshire Medical Center, where he died, Police Chief Anthony J. Riello said. Downing had been district attorney since 1990.

"It's devastating," Attorney General Thomas Reilly said. "He was the real deal. He was a superb courtroom trial lawyer and an icon among district attorneys, who understood the impact of crime on victims. It's a tremendous loss to the entire state."

Among the high-profile cases Downing prosecuted was the 1992 conviction of Wayne Lo, a student at Simon's Rock of Bard College, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing two people and wounding four others in a shooting rampage. (Downing obituary, E14.)

Globe correspondent Kevin Joy contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.

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