By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM
February 5, 2014
New York City has faced a messy meteorological start to the year, a spate of storms that has sapped the patience of even its most stoic residents.
For the man in charge of cleaning the city’s streets, the wild weather has also been something else: an unexpected, end-of-career test, and perhaps a final chance at a snowy form of redemption.
John J. Doherty is New York’s longest-serving sanitation commissioner, with decades of blizzards under his belt. But he did not expect quite such a tough time when he agreed to postpone retirement for a few more months to aid the infant administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Now, Mr. Doherty, 75, is the butt of criticism, facing the usual snowstorm complaints about sluggishness and poor preparation, along with a few novel accusations, such as plowing poorer neighborhoods before wealthier ones.
On Wednesday, after battling the latest mix of ice and sleet to afflict his city, Mr. Doherty stood stern-faced at a news conference as another nuisance, a potential salt shortage, was raised by reporters. When it came time for Mr. de Blasio to thank his team, the commissioner’s name went conspicuously unmentioned.
If it has been a long winter for all New Yorkers, it has been an even longer one for Mr. Doherty.
“It’s a little depressing on some days, no doubt about it,” the commissioner said in an interview on Wednesday, his staccato Staten Island twang at full speed despite a 3 a.m. wake-up call and a morning of monitoring plowing efforts across the city.
A year ago, Mr. Doherty — who joined the Sanitation Department as a trash collector in 1960, before Mr. de Blasio was born — had toyed with the idea of stepping down, and pursuing a newfound culinary interest in dessert-making. The man once nicknamed “Mr. Snow” for his expertise in the art and theory of slush removal thought he might, for once, choose to relax.
But when Mr. de Blasio, wary of governing in winter without a sanitation chief, asked Mr. Doherty to stay, the commissioner said he was unable to decline.
“This kind of life keeps you going, keeps you young,” said Mr. Doherty, an avid bicyclist and swimmer, although he gave up his motorcycle, explaining that it was not safe to use in the city.
Still, these days, Mr. Doherty said, New Yorkers’ expectations seemed to be higher than ever.
“You’ve got 24-hour TV; you’ve got Twitter; you’ve got social media,” he said. “Today, they want to see the street down to pavement, no matter what time the storm hit, and no matter what the temperatures were.”
“It’s a faster life,” he added, “and they expect the snow operation to go faster than it used to.”
Mr. Doherty had served as the city’s sanitation chief for 12 years under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and, before that, from 1994 to 1998 under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He briefly retired to California, but said he found the lifestyle out there boring.
Veterans of city government said they were not surprised that Mr. Doherty, who they described as tireless and deeply devoted to his work, chose to stay on.
“He would literally sleep in the office,” recalled Edward Skyler, a former deputy mayor for operations in the Bloomberg administration who worked closely with Mr. Doherty in a number of weather crises. “He’s a public servant through and through,”
At the peak of a blizzard, Mr. Doherty has been known to ride around the city in an S.U.V., radioing his crews to inquire about salt levels on the Hutchinson River Parkway and warning about ice buildup in Queens.
When a storm was forecast, “you always would see him take the stack of index cards and start going through them, almost as if he were preparing for a speech,” said Joseph Timpone, who served for more than 30 years with Mr. Doherty in the Sanitation Department.
“It’s in his blood,” Mr. Timpone added. “It’s really incredible after all those years he still has a zest for the job.”
That zeal has been tested in recent weeks. Mr. Doherty faced criticism in January from Upper East Side residents who believed their streets had been intentionally ignored by the populist de Blasio administration. The mayor later declared the city’s efforts less than optimal, and Mr. Doherty was spotted sitting sheepishly on a bench outside Mr. de Blasio’s office, a student called to the principal.
Mr. de Blasio’s response was a departure from the Bloomberg years, when the mayor fiercely defended his commissioners. (A spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio said the mayor considered Mr. Doherty “a valued member of the team.”)
At the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Doherty, clad in a leather jacket, stood at the far end of the city officials gathered at City Hall. When the commissioner was asked by a reporter about lessons from this latest storm, Mr. de Blasio looked at his sanitation chief.
“What did you learn in school today?” the mayor asked Mr. Doherty, with a laugh.
Afterward, Mr. Doherty shrugged off concerns about storm response, saying he was satisfied with the city’s performance this year.
“You sign on, and you do the job, and you keep working at it,” he said. “It’s all you can do.”
The commissioner, who was paid more than $200,000 last year and also collects a pension of more than $100,000, is a well-known figure on Staten Island, where he lived for decades before he and his wife moved to Brooklyn last year. At the first sign of snow, reporters at The Staten Island Advance were dispatched to his home — a three-bedroom ranch he bought in 1964 — to see if his street had been given preferential plowing treatment.
When he toured New Dorp Beach after Hurricane Sandy, the commissioner was told residents, many of whom had lost their homes, were planning to attend Sunday Mass at a nearby church with no power and no heat. He removed his city jacket and joined them.
Mr. Doherty has weathered difficult storms — of many kinds — before. This winter’s snowfall of 40.3 inches in Central Park, while higher than average, is still far from the 75.6 inches recorded in winter 1995-96, when Mr. Doherty was also serving as commissioner.
And Mr. Doherty’s toughest professional moment came in 2010, when a Christmas-time blizzard paralyzed the city and became a political liability for the Bloomberg administration.
That experience was so discouraging for Mr. Doherty that he considered resigning, and hoped for a big snowstorm the next year to redeem the Sanitation Department’s reputation, according to “Picking Up,” an anthropological study of the department.
On Wednesday, Mr. Doherty said that he was cleareyed about the terms of his current role, adding that he and Mr. de Blasio had not discussed how long he would stay in the job.
But the commissioner said he knew one thing: He wants to finish the season on a high note.
“I always worry,” Mr. Doherty said. “ ‘John, you don’t want to go out with a cloud over your head.’ ”