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On the front lines

City council staff often flooded with constituent calls for help

(Published March 8, 2001)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

"Overwhelming."

"Inordinate."

"Non-stop."

Thatís how D.C. City Council staff describe the flood of calls and letters that pour into their offices every day from residents seeking help with burst water mains, clogged sewers, dead trees, lost tax returns or dozens of other problems.

"Itís nonstop down here, it always has been," said John Ralls, executive assistant to Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2. Ralls figures he handles 50-75 requests a day, for everything from ceremonial resolutions to money for overdue rent.

But thereís no magic formula for getting results, Ralls said. Most council staff handling constituent service requests apparently do just what a resident could do ó call the appropriate city agency. But Ralls said he doesnít necessarily get better results.

"People assume we can snap our fingers and it happens," he said. "But the truth is, it requires a lot of phone calls and maneuvering and follow-up. Some cases have gone on for years."

The "clout" of a council memberís office doesnít always mean very much.

"Itís hard to make things happen," Ralls said. "I want to cry whenever we get calls for a tree problem."

There are few specific rules to guide the council staff charged with greasing the wheels of D.C. government. Each council member has a constituent services director on staff and most farm out requests for help to two or three additional staff members who often have other legislative, administrative or research responsibilities. How they handle calls and letters is up to the council member.

A recent report commissioned by the council from the National Council of State Legislatures on the need for council reform highlighted the lack of coordination on constituent services.

"Membersí staff field hundreds, even thousands, of these requests during a council period. However there is no council-wide standard for how these requests should be handled or managed. Each office has developed its own approach... complaints and requests of constituents are not analyzed to identify recurring District problems that might provoke increased oversight of specific agencies or needed legislation," the report said.

Most council staff say theyíre simply too busy to keep complicated records on each call.

"I donít spend time tracking, I spend time fixing," said JoAnne Ginsburg, executive assistant to Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3.

"At one point we had a very complicated tracking system," Ralls said. "It just didnít help that much. With the staffing time that it requires, itís better to just focus on taking care of the problem."

But some observers have begun to question why so much council staff time and energy is spent handling routine complaints that ought to be dealt with by city departments such as Public Works or Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Having council staff respond ad hoc to routine problems such as potholes and trees is not only inefficient but takes staff away from legislative and oversight responsibilities, said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, a local nonprofit research group that recently published the results of a year-long study on the inner workings of the council.

"Why should council staff be the ones to make the call to DCRA, DPW or DMV?" he said. "I realize itís very difficult to say Ďnoí to a constituent, but the overwhelming burden of handling these things hinders the councilsí ability to do other things like fiscal analysis, budgeting and oversight."

Ralls acknowledges constituent service calls take up the majority of time in Evansí office.

But council members and their staffs say they have no choice but to pick up the slack left by poorly performing or unresponsive agencies.

"In a perfect world, if the (agencies) were functioning better, I wouldnít have to do so much constituent service," said Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large. "But I am here to serve the residents. Itís a natural part of my job."

And even though itís frustrating and time consuming, staff say thereís a certain appeal to getting nitty-gritty things done.

"It appears that constituent work in the membersí offices is generally regarded as a welcomed encumbrance," said the NCSL report. "It serves to solidify council member connections with voters and helps members demonstrate their ability to deliver real results to citizens. However the constituent service function appears to be consuming a disproportionate amount of staff resources."

In the short run, good work in constituent services can make the difference in an election, Wyner said. But in the long run, it trains residents to circumvent the agencies altogether and become "frequent flyers" at their favorite council office.

"There are people in my neighborhood who call (Councilwoman) Kathy Patterson the minute they need something done," said Wyner, who lives in Ward 3. "They donít even bother to call the (appropriate agency) number in the phone book."

And then there are people who simply ask council members to use their clout on their behalf.

"Some people just call to say, ĎI got a ticket and Iím mad,í" said Tawanna Shuford, who works for Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward-6. "They expect the council member to bend the rules. We canít do that."

What Shuford can do, she said, is put the constituent on a three-way call with herself and someone in the appropriate agency. Of course, Shuford said, the only agency directory available is leftover from the administration of former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, compiled in 1993, and many names and numbers are no longer valid. That makes it kind of trying, she said.

Until recently council staff were on their own to forge relationships with individuals in each agency who could help them get things done. But recently constituent services staff in all council offices began meeting monthly to share information and tips on getting complaints resolved. Archie Williams, who works on the staff of council Chairman Linda Cropp, convenes the closed-door gatherings but declined to say what gets discussed.

In the meantime, thereís no way of knowing for sure how many total calls and letters come in to council offices or what they are about. Nobody is sure which agencies generate the most complaints or how long it takes to get them resolved. And no one knows how much city agency action is prompted by calls from council offices, rather than routine agency procedures.

Some day, perhaps soon, Shuford hopes, city agencies will function better and her job wonít be so hectic.

But Wyner said waiting for the agencies to improve isnít enough. Councilís legislative, budgeting and oversight functions suffer because constituent services put a huge drain on staff.

"The only way that culture changes is for council members and the public to have honest discussions about what is appropriate for council to handle and what is not," he said.

Some residents, worried that their concern will be ignored, make extra sure their story is heard. They call the agency and the council member, said Kay Mitchell, constituent services director for Councilman Harold Brazil, D-At large. Then when Mitchell calls the agency, she finds the problem already resolved.

"Then again," Mitchell said, "some people with a complaint will call every council member."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator