The Baltimore Sun's Voter Guide 2016

Plowing politics can be as treacherous as the snow in Maryland

The politics of plowing heat up after blizzard in Maryland.

As the weekend blizzard approached Friday, Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman spoke to one of his most powerful residents — Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford — to let his fellow Republican know snow removal crews stood ready to plow his street.

"The lieutenant governor contacted me on Saturday and said if he could get out before the end of Sunday night or Monday morning that would be great," Kittleman said of their phone conversation. "We got it done Sunday night."

Many other Howard County residents aren't so fortunate, and the complaints are mounting around the Baltimore region about the slow pace of snow removal after the record-setting storm.

Few issues are able to rile an electorate or strike fear in elected leaders like snow removal. Elections have been lost after failed plowing efforts, accusations are routinely hurled about rich neighborhoods getting cleared first, and elected officials sometimes sound alarms over perceived political slights.

Kittleman said Rutherford was needed in Annapolis to help manage the statewide storm response, and so he made an exception to his rule about not extending plowing preferences to elected officials. The county executive noted that dozens of other streets had been plowed at that point as well.

But some county politicians were miffed. Del. Frank Turner, a Howard County Democrat who lives a block away from Rutherford and remained snowed in Monday afternoon, questioned what he called a double standard. All the other cul-de-sacs off plowed Eden Brook Drive remained untouched, he said.

"You have to deal with the politics of plowing," Turner said. "They came within a street of mine but didn't do it. I just find that odd."

Kittleman also faced criticism because his county's online snowplow tracker malfunctioned and shut down, leaving residents fuming and with little information about when their streets might be cleared.

Howard wasn't the only jurisdiction under fire. In Baltimore City, some council members were frustrated by the pace of snow removal, given the $40,000 an hour paid to contractors and the fact that snow stopped falling Saturday.

In Harford County, residents complained that their online snow tracker went dark overnight. Baltimore County officials fielded complaints from constituents who remained snowbound Monday. And some residents in Anne Arundel and Carroll counties griped about the pace of the cleanup.

But many residents also said they gained a greater appreciation for how their tax dollars are spent to carry out one of government's most essential functions: keeping the roads functioning.

Facebook pages for nearly all of the area's jurisdictions lit up with complaints and compliments for how snow removal crews were progressing.

For their part, elected officials don't shy from public appearances during major storms, promising a diligent response and hoping to win political currency. And in Maryland, voters are typically more forgiving of any failures, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

Not so where major snow events are more common. Crenson pointed to Michael Bilandic, mayor of Chicago in the late 1970s when a blizzard crippled that city for months.

"His snow removal efforts were so feeble he lost the next election," Crenson said. Maryland voters "are likely to give their elected officials a pass."

That is, Crenson said, if cleanup is largely done by Tuesday.

Ellen B. Cutler, 63, who lives in Aberdeen and teaches art history at Maryland Institute College of Art, said she has been shocked at the Harford County city's response to the storm. She lives on a cul-de-sac that had still not been plowed Monday night. As a New England native, she said she's "pretty fair about snow."

"But I can't get out of my house," said Cutler, who has lived in the house with her 82-year-old husband for 10 years. In 2010, she said, the city plowed her street more quickly. She blames Mayor Patrick M. McGrady, for whom she didn't vote.

Even Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky, a Republican, was frustrated. "My neighborhood in Aberdeen has much work to be done," Slutzky wrote in an email.

McGrady, a Republican, said "there is no prioritization of some neighborhoods over others."

"It isn't political for me. It's about helping the people," McGrady said. "The fact is our crews have been working 16-hour shifts to make sure the roads are clear."

Cindy Mumby, spokeswoman for County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, said crews had most of their work on Saturday ruined by high winds, forcing plows to "start at square one on Sunday." By Monday night, Mumby said, the county expected to have plowed about 85 percent to 90 percent of its 1,000 miles of roads and 1,200 cul-de-sacs.

As for the online plow tracker, Mumby said: "When the crews are sleeping, the map won't show the location of the plows."

Overall, Mumby said, the site "has been tremendously popular." She said the site had 62,000 unique visitors over the weekend, noting the county only has about 90,000 households.

In Howard County, Kittleman decided to take down the county's decade-old plow-tracking system rather than continue to frustrate visitors. The vendor that operates the system could not guarantee its accuracy in part because some trucks weren't equipped with tracking devices.

"It's not working," said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat. "The software is not as reliable as it used to be. It was recording streets being cleared that weren't and not recording streets that were. Instead of making people crazy it was the considered opinion of all involved to take it down."

Sigaty said she has been urging residents to be patient.

"I'm working with my constituents to help them understand someone is always first and someone is always last to get plowed," she said. "We're all waiting for the plows."

Rutherford's road was not plowed until after 5 p.m. Sunday. That's "not particularly early," said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Rutherford. "He thought it was important that he be able to leave his house to attend to his official duties 18 hours after the storm ended."

In Baltimore County, Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, was shocked that as of Monday afternoon his neighborhood and several others in Perry Hall were still not plowed.

"I'm extraordinarily frustrated at the lack of progress in very populous parts of Perry Hall and Towson," Marks said. "And I'm struggling to find answers for why it's taking so long to get to the streets."

Baltimore County Council Chairman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, said she and other council members have fielded complaints but that, overall, she has been pleased with the county's response.

Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, said crews have been working since Friday to clear streets. Personnel has been increased from 491 to 700 with the help of contractors to meet the goal of hitting every street by Wednesday.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who is not running for re-election, has been touting the city's success so far at removing snow and urged patience.

City Councilman Bill Henry, a Democrat who represents parts of North Baltimore, said some residents are frustrated by a lack of information about the city's plans.

"Everybody who thinks that their neighborhood or street or block is being ignored while someone else is getting plowed because of a more expensive house, or they're better politically connected, I would say, 'Sit tight and they will get to you,'" Henry said.

But Baltimore Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, another Democrat, said he received angry phone calls, emails and texts from constituents all day Monday about snow removal.

"I've never seen it this bad," Reisinger said.

Voters, he added, will not be able to vent at the ballot box in April's Democratic primary.

"I just throw my hands up and deal with it for the next 10 months," Reisinger said. "There's no accountability."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad