Residents are questioning the policing of snow removal throughout Cambridge, city councillors say. (Photo: katybeck)

These days only snow — considering up to 10 inches of it is due late Wednesday in the fourth significant storm of the winter — can challenge development and zoning issues for the attention of the City Council.

At the council’s Monday meeting, there were three policy orders, ensuing discussion and an amendment on snow issues, although none is expected to be enacted before the latest winter storm warning goes into effect at 4 p.m.

As future storms arrive, though, residents on the city’s major streets may get a service some consider a relic in the Internet age: warnings, delivered through a bullhorn by Public Works employees, that imminent snowfall will bring a fleet of tow trucks to clear roads for plowing. In recent snowfall, the city has towed more than 200 cars, councillor Tim Toomey said.

Getting back an impounded car is expensive and sometimes physically difficult, especially for the elderly, Toomey said, the group most likely to be taken unaware by towing because they don’t have access to the Web or cable television.

“There has to be some avenue for people who, believe it or not, don’t watch cable and don’t have access to websites,” he said. “We have to go back to police or Public Works once or twice making a sweep through those streets in a snow emergency and announcing it so people have an opportunity to move their cars.”

His amendment went on a policy order by councillor Leland Cheung that would also be helpful to seniors and others having to move their cars in a snow emergency: expanding the times city parking can be used for free to get cars off roads that need plowing.

“Snow emergencies often begin late at night,” Cheung’s order says, and “many residents do not have the luxury of being able to afford to pay to park their car early, or of being able to leave their homes and families to park their car late at night, and are therefore discouraged from moving their cars off the road.”

Cheung’s order would open free city lots at 8 p.m. for snow emergencies that begin later.

Shoveling, enforcement and other issues

In another order he asked City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr. to find out how many tickets had been issued to property owners for failing to clear sidewalks after a storm, since e-mails to councillors showed the public was skeptical policing was being done.

To disprove it, councillor Henrietta Davis waved one of the neon orange door hangers given to property owners — this one went to her neighbor, she said — to show a city worker had spotted a violation and would be mailing a ticket.

“I just wanted everyone to see how bold a statement this makes,” Davis said. “DPW is paying attention.”

The final snow-related order Cheung presented asked the city to better publicize its Snow Exemption Program, which allows elderly, disabled and low-income residents to sign up to have their sidewalks shoveled for free by city workers. “Unfortunately, many residents do not know about this program,” Cheung wrote, noting how they “as a result put themselves at risk by shoveling or violating Cambridge’s sidewalk clearance regulations.”

There were also questions about improving snow removal in general; whether Public Works employees could take away furniture left illegally in the street to stake out parking spots; and whether the new recycling toters were a boon or curse when it snowed. Councillor Craig Kelley invited questions for — and participation in — a 5:30 p.m. Feb. 10 meeting of the council’s Traffic, Parking and Transportation Committee at City Hall, where the issues would be addressed.

Praise for Public Works

Snow will lead to at least one more policy order for the year, councillor Sam Seidel said. He planned to ask Healy to report back on how Public Works teams communicated during storms, when snow and wind fells trees or breaks branches, taking out power and leaving residents in the dark. Some 80,000 residents in the region lost power during the Jan. 12 storm, power officials said.

Seidel’s curiosity stemmed not from criticism, though, despite complaints from residents, and the Public Works department came in for praise from several councillors during the discussion.

“I want to commend the DPW employees and contractors who worked a number of the last storms. There’s only a limited amount of employees, and they can’t be working 48 hours straight,” Toomey said, noting their work clearing of snow and tree branches. “The work that they did was above par, as usual … compared to a lot of other communities, Cambridge did a good job.”

The city’s going through “an enormous amount of overtime, which is money well spent,” he said. “With a major storm like that, there will be delays. It’s winter in New England. These things do happen.”

Another reason there may be more snow around for longer is that the city has fewer places where it can dump what’s been cleared from the streets, he said. At one time the snow could be dropped into the Charles River or on empty lots in Kendall Square.

It wasn’t long before he reported getting a text message from Public Works Commissioner Lisa Peterson, who was watching the meeting at home on television. Some of the snow went to property belonging to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to the Field Street side of Danehy Park, which officials have said was designed to retain water.