Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Many who walk the streets of Evanston during the dead of winter appreciate thoughtful homeowners who meticulously clear sidewalks of snow and ice, grudgingly accept those who at least make some effort to clear though falling perhaps a bit short of ideal, and then shake our fists at those who do nothing. Walkers take to the streets for a reason – the streets are usually clear.

On Monday, February 10, Evanston City Council introduced an amended ordinance that tackles the problem the way Evanston always seems to tackle problems: punishment. Fines. Levies. Escalating notices of financial penalties, increasing by at least $150 per day, for those scofflaws who fail to timely clear snow and ice from in front of their homes.

If passed, we all know what the result will be. Barely one more sidewalk will be cleared. The same scofflaws will still fail the clear snow and ice, incur fines, risk liens on their home. Meanwhile, those same walkers – you and I – will take to the streets to walk around those icy sidewalks. Nothing will change. The City will levy fines; sidewalks will stay icy.

All too often, the City takes this approach. Parking? Tickets and fines are built into our budget. Put the wrong stuff in the alley, here comes another orange sticker and fine. To drive in Evanston, you better pay the wheel tax. Or get fined. Over and over and over again. We have to fine residents to balance our budget. It feels like the City is out to get residents rather than working for and with us to solve problems.

At least with snow shoveling, there is a better way. As a community, we can actually solve the problem rather than simply levying more fines that will not, in the end, clear any sidewalks.

First, we have to acknowledge some obvious facts. There are often very good reasons people do not shovel the sidewalks in front of their homes. Two jump immediately to mind. One, people travel and might, quite simply, find themselves out of town when the snow falls. Now, in Evanston, the government quite understandably seeks to punish them for such occurrences. But they have really done no wrong – just traveled. Vacationed.

A second reason: age or poor health. It is not safe for many of our elderly residents to grab a shovel. Even our Evanston government does not believe it right or fair to punish our invalid residents. Yet that’s what the new ordinance would do. Punish. Everyone.

Again, fines will not solve this. Efforts to connect elderly with volunteers are nice, but incomplete.

A better program, and one that would result in actually clearing our sidewalks: the City should arrange to clear any sidewalk reported as not cleared. The homeowner should pay the cost of such snow removal. This is not a fine, this is a cleared sidewalk, paid for by our residents, helping walkers.

Ideally, the City’s Winter Youth Employment program would put high school students to work gaining experience, money and helping residents. The cost would be fair. We would engage our youth, promote supervisors, send out troops every snow event. Residents could even opt in – call the City and ask for clearance before the punishing notice appears on their door. But if people are out of town, so be it – the notice goes on the door and if the walk isn’t timely cleared, then the Winter Youth employment program takes over.

If we cannot get enough Evanston youth, then City staff can add overtime hours. We can come up with a fair price for snow clearance. The cost can be added to the water bill, much as garbage infractions are.

In the end, problems will be solved. Sidewalks will be cleared. And we will achieve this without the petty punishment mentality that so often dominates Evanston policy choices.

Rather than passing another ordinance that will add more and more fines to our residents, the City can make a different, better choice: we should actually clear the sidewalks.