Can You Fight City Hall?
It was dark out when my husband and I came home to find our house lit up like a movie set. Bright light beamed in from the street through every front window. I expected police to barge in and start questioning us: “Where were you on the night of January 27th?”
I tried to remember what I’d done wrong, which is quite a list. “You did pay the Visa bill, right?” I asked DC.
I looked outside squinting. I expected to see searchlights. Instead, I saw that a new streetlight sporting a 3,000-watt bulb had sprouted like Jack’s beanstalk directly across the street. Not only was the light brighter than the sun, but it was also a ghastly color, like you’d see surrounding a prison.
“Who put that there?” I asked my husband who was getting his sunglasses.
We closed the shutters. The light crept through. I slept wearing an eye mask.
“This is not okay,” I tell DC after a few nights in the spotlight.
“So, you going to fight city hall?” he asks.
I call the city electric department. A semi-sympathetic-sounding woman said she would pass my complaint along. A couple days later, an administrative coordinator for the utility company called back.
The city had performed an assessment of the street in front of our house, she informed me, and concluded that it needed more light. She had talked with supervisors of the many departments involved in this decision. The light could not be removed.
“Wait? So the city can put up a streetlight that directly impacts my quality of life, quality of sleep and potentially my home’s value, and I have no say?”
She said something like, “Pretty much.”
I asked to speak to someone who had more authority.
That’s when my switch flipped from private resident to public columnist.
“Okay, then maybe you could point me to someone from the city who could give me a statement for the newspaper. As a public service, I would like to share what rights and recourses residents do have when their city makes a move that impacts their quality of life? After all, isn’t the definition of community a city and its residents working together?”
This streetlight issue had me pretty lit up.
Thirty minutes later, she calls back. Somebody on high thought maybe they could put a visor or a lampshade on the streetlight to block some of its light.
“I’d appreciate that,” I said. (Was this because I was going to write about it?)
An hour and a half later, she calls again to say the city will take the light down.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Thank you.” However, I pondered, how did that happen? And how could this have been handled better?
To find out, I called the mayor.
“You did largely the right thing,” said Winter Park, Fla., Mayor Phil Anderson. (“Largely” being the operative word.) Before he offered his suggestions for how residents anywhere can successfully interact with their cities, he offered this context: “Most of us elected to serve in local government do so because we want to make the lives of residents better. We didn’t run to solve some international crisis. If approached in a constructive way, we will try to make it better.”
That said, he encourages all residents to contact city hall whenever they have a problem the city can solve — or caused. Besides obnoxious streetlights, other common complaints involve traffic issues, downed powerlines, outages, broken pipes, uneven sidewalks, and potholes.
Whether you live in a town with 5,000 or 500,000 residents, the process is the roughly same, Anderson said. Here are seven ways to work with city hall:
1. Find the right gatekeeper. Getting to the right person is the key, though not always easy. “Your experience highlights how frustrating the path can be,” Anderson said. “Most cities have that front-facing person who knows who does what and can point you in the right direction.” This is where I went wrong. I called the city utility company, but the clerk who fielded my call was trained to handle billing issues and utility transfers. If the city doesn’t run your utility company, the gatekeeper can tell you who does.
2. Be persistent. If you don’t like the answer you get, pleasantly escalate. Ask to talk to the representative’s supervisor. Send emails, so you have a written trail. Include photos. If you get nowhere, call a different department and continue up the complaint ladder.
3. File a citizen’s report. Most city websites provide a way for residents to submit a citizen’s report, which theoretically gets quickly dispatched to the right department, such as power, water, sewer, public works, or something else. Here you can report a broken sidewalk, a burst water pipe, a downed power line, a tree in the road, a flashing or broken streetlight, and the like.
4. Go to a city meeting. Most cities have frequent council or commissioner meetings, which allow open-mike periods, giving residents a few minutes to express concerns and get a response.
5. Contact the city manager. An appointed (not elected) position, city managers oversee all city departments and employees. They (or those in their offices) can look into why something did or didn’t happen. Depending on the issue, they might provide fast action.
6. Reach out to your mayor or city commissioner. “If a problem needs a policy change to get fixed,” Anderson said, “that’s where elected officials come in.” City commissioners, including mayors, and council members set policy. For example, if you’d like cars in your neighborhood to slow down, you might go directly to your elected official to suggest installing speed bumps or stop signs.
7. Exercise your civic rights. Your city government works for you. If you’re losing sleep over a streetlight, speak up. Or run for office. Communities work best when the city and its residents work together.
CAPTION: Enlightened — If a poorly placed streetlight or other municipal matter is keeping you awake at night, speak up. Most city officials want to make their residents’ lives better. Photo courtesy of dreamstime.com.
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