Upham's Corner Online

Interview with Chief Michael Mackan, Boston Code Enforcement 1/21/2011

It was a pleasure to speak with Chief Mackan.  He emphasized Code Enforcement's attitude to teach first and punish only if necessary.  He also supported the expansion of the snow removal ordinance to include curbs, fire hydrants, handicap ramps and catch basins.  He highlighted the role of the mail carrier and how easily we forget about the impact that our pedestrian walkways have on their ability to deliver the mail.
Nancy: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.  Let me begin by asking your about your Code Enforcement officers.  There are about 620,000 residents and 52,000 businesses in Boston.  How many Code Enforcement officers are there?

Mike:  We have 16 officers who cover Monday through Friday, 24 hours a day.  Two officers assigned midnight to 8am and the remainder on three different shifts to the other time periods.  

Nancy:  Is your organization proactive or reactive in enforcing ordinances?  

Mike:  It depends.  For this last storm (1/12/11), we received over 950 complaints and that stretches us thin, so instead of being proactive, we end up being reactive, going complaint to complaint.  It's tough for us to be able to walk down a street as an ordinary citizen does and look at every house or every business.  

You can call us directly on a complaint, send it via the internet, call the Mayor's hotline and the newest way is to use the Citizens Connect app.  People snap photographs and send them to us.  We're really busy responding to all of this. There's no downtime where we can say:  "Okay let's go ahead and see if people are actually plowing to 42 inches like the ordinance requires."  

If we see a 30 inch width or maybe a shovel's width, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. It looks like they made an attempt to get started.  Maybe they are following the Mayor's advice: "Don't do too much because you could overexert yourself." Maybe they might have some physical challenge. We don't know what excuses they may have for not getting out to 42 inches, but we know they're making an attempt. Let's concentrate on the people who have no intention of trying to make the sidewalks passable for anybody.

Nancy:  How does the Upham's Corner business district compare to other business districts?

Mike:  Every section of the city is unique and some do better than others. I can't say if Upham's Corner is better or worse.

Mike:  What I do notice is a downfall of businesses.  If they have a parking lot, they clear the parking lot for the people who can drive and get there but they never think about clearing the sidewalk for the people who walk there.  Businesses tend to forget their pedestrian clients.  So that seems to be common in all of the sections of Boston.

Nancy: It seems the city favors cars and gets them up and running right away and tends to forget about pedestrians.  Is that right?

Mike: You're probably not too far off on that.  The snow relocation effort starts (and you notice I don't call it "snow removal" because we don't remove the snow) - it starts with the plowing of the streets, so emergency apparatus and individuals can get to hospitals or for public safety or life safety.  Clearing the sidewalks is done on an individual basis, homeowner to homeowner. You have to have an ordinance and a fine attached to maybe encourage each person to take their civic pride and complete that task.
Nancy:  Upham's Corner News started this project by looking at some of the residential streets, but really the business streets are more important.  Pedestrians walk those sidewalks for a ton of different reasons - go to the bus, go to the businesses, wait for a taxi.  As a community newspaper, our focus need to be on:  How do we get our business sidewalks passable for the pedestrian? 

Mike:  Most of your businesses are usually located on main drags and that's why they're so heavily traveled by foot.  The old adage:  "You see it, report it." Give Code Enforcement a call and let us know when a business has not shoveled.  We'll get down there and we'll educate them. We have the ability to go in and talk to them, if they're open.  If they're not open, we leave a fine behind.  Being able to talk to an individual directly helps us bring them up to speed.  

"This is the rule.  This is the regulation. You're subject to this amount of fine. When can you take care of this problem? "Oh, we'll get to this right now." And they take care of it.

Nancy:  So you don't initially go out, fine them and then talk to them?

Mike:  If no one is there, then you don't have a chance to communicate with them and you live a fine behind. If the grates are down and the business is closed and we're there on off hours, we'll leave a fine behind. They'll call us the next day and say:  "I've got a fine."  You get to talk to them on the phone but they have to go through the appeal process.  If we have the opportunity to teach and educate before we issue a fine, we prefer that quick resolve over issuing a monetary penalty on top of their failure to comply.

If we go to a business and say:  "You did this and this wrong," and they say they will take care of it.  You return again and it hasn't been done, then there's no wiggle room. They know that the city has been more than fair and firm with them.  We issue a violation and then they end up having to cleaning up and also pay a fine.
Nancy:  A "pedestrian walkway" is more than a sidewalk.  It's the entire path that allows the pedestrian to safely get where they're going. After they leave their property, the minute they get on the sidewalk, they need to be able to walk that full path. The problems start when they come to crossing a street.  

Mike: Because of the amount of snow we've had, it keeps melting and freezing and keeps building.  Everybody is having that same issue about the handicap ramps and the crosswalks, fire hydrants and catch basins.  There's no regulation requiring anybody to clear that snow. What happens is that the mayor usually issues a request, a reminder asking you to be a "good neighbor" and to do the following:
  • shovel out your handicap ramp
  • shovel out your hydrant
  • shovel out your catch basin
If the catch basin is blocked and it rains or the snow begins to melt, there's no place for the water to go. Check on your neighbors.  Make sure if they need a hand but don't over exert yourself out there because the snow can be heavy. Do a little bit at a time. 

That's why if we see someone start shoveling and they haven't completed it yet, we don't actually give a violation. They quit.  They get started.  They get going. Now we go by four or five days later and they've only done the same couple shovels, that's a different story.
Mike: I live in Dorchester like you, Nancy, and I live on a corner lot and I have the pleasure of shoveling 75 feet in the front of my lot and 100 feet down the side of my lot. I live on the corner and there's a handicap ramp.  I know in my neighborhood no one really uses it who is handicapped. BI also know there's a young lady pushing a carriage that uses it.  The mailman uses it, too. Everybody forgets about the poor mailman in the snow.

Nancy: They sure do. I did, too.

Mike: Yes, I know you did.  I'm the only one thinking about him.  Every reporter, every newscaster - the mailman never makes it into the news.  I bowl with a few friends who work for the post office and they say:  "Yah, I saw you on the news last night and the reporter didn't talk about us."  So I say to them in jest ('cause they're my friends) "They don't care about you people.  I bring you up every storm but nobody else cares about you.  Nobody else writes about you.  You guys are the forgotten ones." And we all laugh.   You see, Nancy, it's more than just the elderly and the handicapped people who need access to that ramp.

Mike:  If the ramps are not cleaned out, and the catch basins are blocked, you have a real problem. Even some of the able-bodied people tend to slip and fall over these ramps.  The other night the ramps were a little bit blocked, so if you tried stepping over the snow bank and you thought it was a shallow puddle, you found out too late that it went up over your ankles.  If the handicap ramps and the catch basins were cleared, this kind of problem wouldn't happen.  Those good neighbor tips that the mayor puts out aren't a requirement of the law, so people tend to say "Ah, it's too much. I'm not doing that."
Nancy:  We contacted Stephen Murphy's office and talked about adding enhancements to the existing snow removal ordinance so everybody has a clear definition of what it means to properly take care of snow removal on the sidewalks. Do you think this is a reasonable approach?

Mike:  It seems like that was the thought process in getting people to shovel their sidewalks and it was the thought process in getting people to shovel their sidewalks a little wider, recognizing there was a need to improve on the existing regulation.  It seems natural that maybe some of these additional issues may have to be included in an effort to get people to say:  "Okay I should've been doing that all along anyway."

Nancy:  The City puts out a "Winter Weather Facts" flyer every fall.  Is this helpful?

Mike:  That flyer has a list of "snow removal regulations," but they're not really requirements.  We had a young lady from the globe telling me: "It's the law."  I tried to teach her over the phone:  "No, it's not the law.  It's listed under requirements but it doesn't say:  This is the law and you must do it." 
Nancy:  The City has released a Climate Action document that cites the need to decrease the use of personal vehicles and change over to walking and using public transportation. Is that what it's going to take before people will actually pay attention to the pedestrians?
Is it education that's going to work?  What's going to make the difference here?

Mike:  I remember seeing on the news channel in the last four or five years that Boston was rated the number two pedestrian city in the country. So if people are not aware already in Boston that we're walking, I find that amazing.

Nancy: But it doesn't mean that we're pedestrian friendly.

Mike: I have friends who have that discussion with me during the Spring and Summer.  They don't think it's a pedestrian friendly city but I'm not sure what would be necessary to make it into a pedestrian friendly city. 

Nancy:  What about bus stops?

Mike:  Code enforcement cannot issue violations to a location that is not an address so we do not enforce snow removal at bus stops.

Nancy:  Mike, we've so much enjoyed speaking with you and we've learned a lot in the process. Thanks for doing such a great job.

www.manta.com Number of businesses in Boston (52,000)
Population of Boston 620,000 +
Boston is ranked #3 of cities over t00,000 that are considered "walkable."
Sparking Boston's Climate Revolution - search under "climate revolution"

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