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Failure to shovel snow from your sidewalk could prove costly

Julie Zimmerman 'Jake' shovel  snow  Hyde Park last January. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Julie Zimmerman and "Jake" shovel snow in Hyde Park last January. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 28, 2011 10:16AM

Chicagoans who neglect to shovel their snow-covered sidewalks this winter could be in for a big surprise — a warning notice, followed by a ticket — if an influential alderman has his way.

After watching the Department of Streets and Sanitation showcase its “mobile electronic ticketing,” Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development, suggested Wednesday that the Blackberry technology be used to crack down on a chronic winter violation that endangers and infuriates pedestrians.

“One thing I know is not being written is people who don’t shovel their snow. I’m assuming that this technology is there to take a picture of the snow not being shoveled [and say], ‘Property owner, here’s your $100 ticket.’ Is that correct?” Tunney asked a Streets and San employee doing the demonstration.

“That’s correct,” the employee said.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Tom Byrne added, “You can go that way. We haven’t gotten there yet. The sky’s the limit on it. We can do almost anything with it.”

Homeowners and businesses are required by law to shovel the sidewalks in front of their property, but the ordinance is rarely enforced. Tickets range from $50 to $100.

Tunney said he’s dead serious about cracking down on snow shoveling neglect, but only after giving property owners “one or two” warnings.

“The complaint we have when we go to community meetings is, ‘Who owns that property? We’re trying to walk down the street, and everybody seems to be doing a good job except one or two property owners.’ A ticket here or there [and], all the sudden, the snow will be removed on a timely basis,” he said.

“We need to use some street smarts before we go up and down the block trying to ticket. That’s not necessarily good for business. It’s not good for residents. It’s not good for politics. But at a point, we need people to abide by the municipal code.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said any crackdown should target businesses — not homeowners.

“I don’t think we need to be patrolling citizens who do not shovel their sidewalks. Some of them may not be able to,” she said.

In the past, Chicago’s 50 ward superintendents hand- wrote tickets for an array of violations using a paper driven system and hand-held cameras.

Pictures of the violation were stapled together with the ticket and the court complaint, then shipped off to the Law Department for a title search to determine who owns the property. The file was then sent to the Department of Administrative hearings.

Now that all 50 ward superintendents have Blackberries, the system has gone paperless.

If a ward superintendent sees a vacant lot with high weeds, he or she snaps a picture of it with the Blackberry, types in an electronic ticket and e-mails the electronic file to the Law Department, where the ticket is cleared and sent to Administrative Hearings.

“We’re not doing title searches anymore. We’re not doing any type of real documentation on a lot. The GPS coordinates tell you the true coordinate, which saves a whole lot of time,” Byrne said.

The proposal to get tough on Chicagoans who fail to shovel their sidewalks comes at a time when crackdowns are also pending against disabled parking fraud, owners of unlicensed dogs and motorists who speed down residential streets near schools and parks.

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