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Tickets, not flakes, pile up in Somerville

Mayors in northern cities the nation over live in fear of the havoc that a snowstorm might wreak, not so much on their cities, but on their political careers.

But in the city of Somerville this week, it took a decidedly different turn. Though the storm never came, the towtrucks and metermaids did show up, and the lack of snow has left a newly elected mayor explaining his actions to thousands of irate residents whose cars were ticketed or towed.

In short, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone declared a snow emergency early Tuesday evening even while the skies and the forecasts were in flux. Within hours, with nary a flake in sight and barely any on the way, 3,000 cars were ticketed, and an additional 200 were towed. The tickets cost $50, and the tow jobs $145.

When the city's residents awoke yesterday, many found neither snow nor cars. Many more found tickets for parking on snow emergency routes, though the pavement was just about bare. The police station was more crowded than a Dunkin' Donuts during the morning rush hour, though the customers were not nearly as nice.

"They shouldn't be able to charge you because they ain't got no snow," said Somerville resident Jeff Reislen, who received a $50 ticket for parking on a snow emergency street. "This is ridiculous."

The mayor disagrees and said in a telephone interview yesterday that he has no plans to forgive the tickets or the towing charges, which could combine for a possible $179,000 windfall for city coffers, minus the manpower costs involved.

"We are at the whim of forecasts and projections," said Curtatone, who took office earlier this month. "Sometimes it snows more, sometimes less, sometimes not at all. We're all in the same boat as far as projections."

But in terms of declaring emergencies, Curtatone had very little company. When asked if Boston had declared a snow emergency, Seth Gitell, spokesman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, responded: "It didn't snow."

Neither Boston nor the state deployed any additional personnel. Likewise, the cities of Cambridge and Watertown and the town of Arlington all held off on storm declaration and the tickets and towing that go with it.

In fact, though Curtatone pointedly said that "other cities ticketed and towed," an informal survey yesterday found that only Chelsea took similar steps, but not nearly to the same extent. Captain Brian Kyes of Chelsea police said that 50 cars were ticketed and towed for the storm that never came.

Nonetheless, an unapologetic Curtatone said that efforts to clean up after past snowstorms, particularly the early December storm, were hampered by poor parking enforcement on the part of the city and that he aims to change it.

"In Somerville, snow removal has been terrible in past years," Curtatone said. "It's an absolute necessity that we get that done. If it did snow, there'd be people upset. There's a clear, consistent policy."

But what appeared most frustrating for residents yesterday was the timing of the city's efforts. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Curtatone declared the emergency based on forecasts, he said.

Less than an hour later, at 7:50 p.m., the National Weather Service downgraded its prediction from a storm warning to an advisory for the area north of the Massachusetts Turnpike, according to meteorologist Charlie Foley.

From 7 to 11 p.m., police cars roamed Somerville's streets announcing, via megaphones, that a snow emergency had been called and that designated routes had to be cleared of parked cars. The emergency also was broadcast on cable television, the mayor said.

The towing and ticketing effort was launched at 11 o'clock, three hours after the downgrade, even as the forecast on Boston.com predicted just 1 to 3 inches. The snow advisory was canceled by 4:20 a.m.

One resident, Reid VanGorden, said yesterday that his friend's car had been towed at 2:30 a.m. "The cops drove by some time before that with a bullhorn, but it's very tough to hear exactly what they are saying on the second or third floor of a building," VanGorden said.

By yesterday, most of the region had received slightly more than an inch of snow, a dusting by local standards. Given the fickle nature of New England weather forecasts, residents, at least those outside Somerville, were more relieved than surprised.

Unbowed, Curtatone said he would follow the city policy all over again, which is to declare an emergency at the prediction of 4 or more inches of snow and give residents four hours to remove their vehicles.

Of the people who got tickets Tuesday night and yesterday morning, he said, "They should file an appeal."

At another point in the interview, as he looked back over the course of the storm that never came, he said simply, "I don't think I've ever prayed for snow so much in my life."

Globe correspondent Jessica Bennett contributed to this report. Brian McGrory's e-mail address is mcgrory@globe.com.

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