Since taking over the city government beat at the Gazette-Times in August 2012 I have always been curious about which city departments engage in the most interaction with the public.
Or more directly: Who receives the most flak or calls with complaints?
I got a pretty good sense of the answer last month at a Ward 5 meeting hosted by new Councilor Charlyn Ellis.
Ellis’ meeting was an “official” ward meeting, which meant she had the full muscle of representatives of almost all city departments on hand at the Chintinimi Community and Senior Center.
In fact, the department heads and city officials almost outnumbered the residents on hand.
The overwhelming majority of questions were on housing, crime and street maintenance issues. Which meant that Paul Bilotta, the Community Development director; Police Chief Jon Sassaman' and Mary Steckel, the Public Works director, were in the hot seats.
Reps from the library, Parks and Recreation, City Hall and Finance also were on hand, but you hardly heard a peep out of them because no questions or concerns were directed to them.
Oh, and Fire Chief Roy Emery was there as well. He got one comment from a woman on Northwest 21st who thanked him for how the department handled a fire in the neighborhood a few years back. Small world. Emery was a lieutenant at the time and remembered the fire.
Classic, just classic, but it also jibes with the customer satisfaction survey numbers that the city releases periodically. Fire and ambulance/emergency medical services consistently rate above 90 percent in terms of residents rating them either excellent or good. The only other city services rated at 90 percent or above in the 2015 release are the library and the garbage and yard pickup of Republic Services, which contracts with the city for that service.
Everyone in town loves the library (although when she retired, longtime director Carolyn Rawles told me that the library does get flak sometimes from residents who find some library materials objectionable). And everyone is grateful that when you call 9-1-1 with a medical/fire emergency the Fire Department always shows up.
Things aren’t as easy for community development, the police and public works.
Housing is a big issue all over town, with student housing challenges the 800-pound gorilla in Ward 5, which is just north of the Oregon State University campus. So Bilotta fielded a lot of questions about what gets built and why.
Ward 5 also has its share of “livability” issues stemming from the student parties in the neighborhood. I have taken four fall walkabouts in the region and I can attest to the challenges of noise and littering and other late-night mayhem that Sassaman’s department faces.
The dilemma that faces Sassaman more often than it does Emery is that he just plain runs out of people. He usually has six officers on the streets at night, and if there is a traffic crash or a domestic violence incident or a prowler Sassaman’s officers have to triage whether the loud party is their highest priority.
Which sometimes leaves residents concerned about police response time, although it should be noted that the CPD received a solid 80 percent satisfaction score in the survey.
Steckel, meanwhile, fielded a series of questions about the condition of city streets. There is approximately a $3 million annual backlog of streets that need fixing, so Public Works crews usually can only tackle problems of the busier thoroughfares, known as arterial and collector streets. Which leaves neighborhood streets and unimproved or "legacy" streets out of luck.
The city has floated a plan to reduce and/or eliminate the blacklog, but it would mean a seven-fold increase in the transportation maintenance fee that appears on residents’ city services bill. Public opposition to the plan coupled with the discovery that the city had been overcharging some businesses under current rates has put the price increase on hold. But the potholes are not going away.
And the survey satisfaction scores show it. Only 37 percent of residents in the 2015 survey thought the street repair situation was excellent or good.