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City wipes out 9,000 snow complaints in error

Walsh apologizes after backlog is cleared unresolved

The city informed resident Paola Ferrer incorrectly that her complaint about snow blocking these stairs in Allston had been addressed.PAOLA M. FERRER/Boston Globe

The good news flashed across Paola M. Ferrer's phone: After repeated requests, the city had finally cleared snow from stairs and a handicapped-access ramp that serve a vital pedestrian bridge in Allston. But when Ferrer arrived at the stairs, she discovered the city had done no work.

"I was angry," Ferrer said. "They said they had removed the snow, but it didn't happen. I felt very frustrated because this wasn't the first time I had reported the snow."

Earlier this month, the city eliminated a massive backlog of snow complaints by arbitrarily closing more than 9,000 cases filed with its 24-hour constituent service system. All the cases were closed over two hours on Feb. 12, as another storm approached, according to data provided by Mayor Martin J. Walsh's administration.


But, officials acknowledged, closing a case didn't mean any snow had actually been removed.

"It was a mistake," Walsh said in an interview Friday. "A staffer — I'm not sure who it was automatically just closed all these cases with the anticipation of a new storm coming. They shouldn't have done it."

For an administration that touts its data-driven approach to municipal government, the misstep raises questions about the response to the season's series of massive snowfalls. The arbitrarily closed cases accounted for more than half the almost 18,000 snow complaints City Hall has resolved.

"There's no scandal here," Walsh said. "There's something that shouldn't have happened. I acknowledge that. For the folks that were inconvenienced . . . I apologize because that's not how we want to operate."

Walsh and other city officials said that many of the complaints were probably resolved during the next storm, when an army of plows worked to clear an additional 16 inches of snow.

But the cases included more than mundane plow requests: There were reports of hulking snow mounds clogging intersections, unshoveled sidewalks abutting city property, and blocked handicapped ramps. In South Boston, a 75-year-old man reported a plow had buried his sidewalk. A Bobcat on Garden Court had encased a fire hydrant. On Magazine Street, a utility pole had been knocked against a building.


Scores of the residents received notices on their smartphones through the Citizens Connect app that "snow has been removed" with a photograph of the local public works crews that supposedly did the work. The smiling employees posed inside a city building, but outside on the street, some snow remained untouched.

"This is a huge deal for us," said Lauren Lockwood, Boston's chief digital officer. "Citizens Connect is a very important channel for us. It's important that our users trust us. We hope to do whatever we can to make this right."

Interim Public Works Commissioner Michael Dennehy apologized in an e-mail sent Feb. 13 to some constituents whose cases were cleared, according to Walsh's staff.

Dennehy noted in the letter that during snowstorms, the city prioritized "major thoroughfares and locations where emergency vehicle access is impeded."

"Unfortunately, we are not always able to individually address every service request," Dennehy wrote. "As we prepare for the upcoming storm, we are closing out older requests to ensure our snow removal personnel can focus on requests tied to the most current conditions."

On Friday, Walsh said the letter was not an acknowledgment that the city was incapable of clearing snow that continues to choke side streets.


"Absolutely not," Walsh said. "We've plowed every street. When people throw snow on streets . . . they may say it's not plowed. We're not going to go around plowing streets when neighbors throw snow."

The largest share of the improperly closed cases was generated by calls to the city's 24-hour hot line from residents such as Adam Frankel. The 30-year-South End resident lives on Worcester Square, where at least 16 complaints were lodged about snow clogging Public Alley 719. In an interview, Frankel said he spoke to an operator at the hotline who confirmed that it was the city's responsibility to clear the alley.

"There's been no response. They definitely did not plow for multiple days after we put in the request," Frankel said. "Eventually, we had to dig out ourselves."

The largest number of the 9,000 improperly closed snow complaints came from Dorchester, which is the city's largest neighborhood. There also were significant numbers in Back Bay, Mattapan, Roxbury, and South Boston.

"I wasn't happy that we closed these cases out because . . . constituents [took] the time to call in," Walsh said. "I like the fact that people call."

Since taking office, Walsh has instituted a data-driven approach to municipal government. His chief of staff, Daniel Koh, has repeatedly described it as a "Moneyball" management style, referring to Michael Lewis's book that chronicled how the Oakland A's used data and statistics to build a competitive team.

Walsh often cites statistics gathered by his constituent service system. He has repeatedly asserted, for example, that his team filled 19,000 potholes last year, which he has said is 50 percent more than the previous administration.


The city will not include the 9,000 improperly closed snow cases when it analyzes its response to the winter storms, according to Lockwood, the digital officer.

Walsh acknowledged Friday that people are "frustrated in the city of Boston that there's so much snow on the ground."

"Sometimes, they need a place to be frustrated with, and the city is a good target," Walsh said. "As I look around, the city is clearing up. It's getting better and better. [But] we've got to continue the [snow] removal effort."

As for those stairs in Allston that Ferrer called about? Residents dug them out. The handicapped ramp remains encrusted with snow.

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Globe correspondent Globe correspondent M.G. Lee contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at