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Our view: Falls a chilling reminder that ice must be removed

Stories of snow angels, those kindly folks who clear sidewalks and driveways for others without seeming to want anything in return, are as abundant in wintry Duluth as the countless snowflakes that cover our city in beauty.

Stories of snow angels, those kindly folks who clear sidewalks and driveways for others without seeming to want anything in return, are as abundant in wintry Duluth as the countless snowflakes that cover our city in beauty.

But emergency room visits for broken wrists and other fall-related injuries, most dramatically, the tragic death of a longtime newspaper carrier who fell on the ice, are cold reminders that everyone must do a better job of making sure sidewalks are clear and safe.

On Friday, Duluth's Robert Johnson died, two days after slipping on a patch of ice and hitting the back of his head. He had delivered the News Tribune for more than 20 years and was finishing up his route when the accident happened. The sympathies and prayers of an entire community go out to his family and friends.

Yes, slips and falls happen during all weather conditions. But the likelihood increases when walkways turn into sheets of ice. Temperature extremes in recent weeks, including a near 50-degree drop in just hours, contribute to transforming sidewalks into skating rinks. It's nothing Northland residents are unfamiliar with, but two years of unseasonably warm winters may have gotten people out of practice dealing with the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle.

Shoveling a path to the garage or out to the street isn't enough; the sidewalk that runs parallel to the street also must be cleared. It's the neighborly and considerate thing to do and it's the law. An ordinance requiring sidewalk snow removal has been on the books in Duluth since 1935 and was updated in 1997. Archaic language was removed and city councilors decided to require residents to clear walkways within 24 hours rather than 36. Businesses have always been required to shovel within 24 hours of a snowfall.

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The ordinance never has had sharp teeth. The city prefers to work cooperatively with residents rather than being heavy-handed and threatening fines or penalties. Enforcement has been complaint-driven, with the city typically mailing out letters to the shoveling-delinquent. When that doesn't prompt action, the city has, in the past, hired contractors to clear sidewalks -- and then sent the $38-an-hour tab to the homeowners.

That hasn't been necessary this year, city gardener Tom Kasper told the News Tribune editorial page yesterday. But complaints about impassable sidewalks have been received -- 95 so far, typical for a normal winter, Kasper said. The city has checked out all of them, finding about 80 to be the city's own responsibility because plows pushed the snow onto the blocked sidewalks. The other 15 were handled not with a threatening letter, but with a friendly phone call from Kasper.

"I tried to do it with a bit of Minnesota nice," he said. "And in all cases they've been cleared."

To that, Mayor Don Ness added: "The majority of Duluthians take the responsibility seriously."

With the approach of spring, expect the melt-thaw, day-night cycles to continue, along with the ice. Shoveling and sanding is everyone's responsibility. Let's all be snow -- and ice -- angels and clear the walks.

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