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Sidewalk issue a chance to reflect on governance

Woolwich isn’t just asking you to do your civic duty, it’s demanding it, at least where sidewalk snow-clearing is concerned.

The township’s plan is to increase the burden on residents to keep their sidewalks cleared, not just when there’s a notable snowfall – the current measure is 38 millimetres or an inch and a half – but at all times. And to have de-icer at the ready. In Elmira, where the sidewalks are cleared at an increasing cost to residents, you’re to ensure you don’t push any snow onto the sidewalk. And to clean up after any deposits by passing plows.

Most people do, of course, clear the sidewalks in front of their homes. Even in Elmira, where a contractor does the work, people will clear them off as they shovel their driveways. But municipalities must tread lightly when making demands of residents in an era when they do little to support the public good and policies are self-serving, not outward looking.

Civic duty needs to flow both ways, a reality lost on profligate politicians and bureaucrats who fail to keep the big picture in mind. There’s precious little long-term thought.

Of course, that can be applied to many aspects of government. At the municipal level even, there are more egregious examples of limited thinking than sidewalk snow-clearing, but it bears repeating.

Township residents outside of Elmira might prefer to step up their own shovelling efforts given proposals to extend the contracting service in Elmira to other settlements. While some might welcome that, others won’t be keen on the price tag.

Even in Elmira, there are those who are unhappy with the service, even if it does let residents off the liability hook.

People still complain about how long it takes crews to arrive, about the thoroughness and about the inevitable ripping up of lawn edges. Some simply clear the sidewalks in front of their homes, rather than wait, a job that everyone else in the township is required to do – they don’t have a service, only a bylaw compelling them to do the work.

From an initial smaller-scale contract, council subsequently approved a plan to clear all walkways in Elmira, expanding the coverage area and enhancing the equipment used to do the job in an attempt to reduce the number of complaints about the service. A good idea in principle, but one that does not always succeed in practice – some people are never going to be happy with the level of service offered by the township.

Outside Elmira, the onus is on individual property owners, with bylaws making it each resident’s job to clear the stretch of sidewalk in front of his or her home. Failure to do so could result in fines, and a bill for costs if public works crew come out to do the job.

The advantage is that it removes the municipality from direct action – and the subsequent costs – but does require some form of enforcement. But people using the sidewalks are still subject to each household’s definition of an acceptable job: some clear right down to the concrete, while others are content to brush off the loose snow, allowing a thick layer of snow and ice to pack on the surface. Human nature dictates that we’re likely to be more tolerant of a “shoddy” job by our neighbours than by the municipality, where our tax dollars are in use: if we’re paying for it, no matter how little, we want a perfect job.

With wider powers in proposed revisions to the bylaw, the township is looking to reduce neighbourhood complaints, but should pause to reflect on its own duties in making demands of citizens.

Keeping sidewalks safe and passable is an idea few would oppose, but every government action should be assessed in light of what it exacts from over-burdened society.

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