Got A Gripe? These Folks Do Care -- City's Complaint Bureau Is At Your Service
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
There was the woman who was convinced fungus was coming through her roof and eating her furniture. She wanted the city to do something about it - pronto.
Then there was the man who was upset because the city placed steel plates, for construction work, on a bike route he uses every day.
Michelle White listens to them. She listens to woeful tales of sewage backups, utility shut-offs and televisions that send cryptic messages. And if you happen to have a complaint, she will listen to you.
She's paid to do this. White is one of four complaint investigators working in the city of Seattle's information-and-complaints center, formally known as the Citizens Service Bureau.
Imagine: spending your whole day listening to people gripe.
Really, it's something of a calling, says White, who on a recent day, listened to people complain about an illegal encampment, a street sign that has leaned at a 45-degree angle for a year and, of course, potholes.
There's arguably no better place to look than this office to find out what Seattleites think is wrong with their city. And what's wrong with the city right now is potholes. Big potholes. Numerous potholes. Why-hasn't-the-city-fixed-them-yet potholes.
"This is a bad year for potholes," says complaint investigator Bruce Stotler, shaking his head.
Not to mention storms, stadiums and - of course - parking.
Topics know no bounds
The Citizens Service Bureau, established in 1965, is housed in a small, windowless office on the first floor of the Municipal Building. There's one director, two operators who provide city government-directory assistance, and the four complaint investigators who take phone and walk-in complaints. Most of the complaints (an average of 450 a week) come in by phone.
Some of the investigators have mediation training, although it's not required. Most of their skills are honed from years of on-the-job training. Among them, the bureau's seven employees have 110 years of city government service, 80 of them within the bureau.
Technically, the office's primary focus is to get people in touch with city-government employees who can help resolve their problems. Practically, they end up offering information on all sorts of things.
"Son purchased car in his name without knowledge or authorization," reads an entry in one of the bureau's logs.
"Neighbor's junk in yard," reads another entry. Also: "Huge boulder at edge of roadway ready to fall."
Calls to the bureau range from garbage not being picked up to pleas from out-of-state residents to please, please find them a job in Seattle because they want to move here.
They get their share of the desperate: those whose utilities are about to be shut off in 24 hours, those who need emergency housing that night.
Some people are so upset they demand to speak to the mayor - and only the mayor.
"You have to think about the legitimacy of each complaint," says bureau Director Terry Wittman.
If the complaint is legitimate - as most are - the staff will contact the appropriate city department and, often, intercede on behalf of the caller.
For those with utilities about to be shut off, for instance, the staff will contact the appropriate utilities department to ask for a possible extension or some other solution. (Pothole complaints, by the way, get forwarded to the Transportation Department.)
"It can take anywhere from hours to months" to resolve an issue, Wittman says.
Biggest topic: L.A. riots
Hot topics vary by month.
"Oh my God - the mudslides," says complaint investigator Cynthia Phillips, leaning back, eyes widening, remembering the flow of calls during the winter storms. People were upset that the city, in their opinion, didn't get to potential mudslide sites fast enough.
Lately there's been a fair number of calls both for and against funding for a new football stadium.
The sword-wielding guy who, last month, tied up downtown traffic during an 11-hour standoff with police, generated some 70 calls, the majority of them wondering why police didn't just throw a net over the man or otherwise temporarily incapacitate him.
The 1991 Gulf War generated 288 calls over several days from both supporters and opponents of the war. Many called complaining about Gulf War protesters blocking city streets, Wittman said.
But the all-time high belongs to the Rodney King verdict of April 1992, when a jury's acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of King, a black motorist, set off rioting in Los Angeles. Nearly 2,000 calls - 1,943 to be exact - came in within a few days.
"Most asked us if Seattle was prepared for riots and if it was safe to come downtown," Wittman says.
Then there are those who use the bureau as part of their own, personal vendettas. "Sometimes neighbors will be out to get someone and they'll turn in neighbors for parking more than 24 hours in one spot," Wittman says.
Another `P' word: parking
Ah yes - the "P" word.
Parking, she sighs, "is really one of the more difficult issues we've got."
There are always people complaining about being ticketed. About being towed.
Seattle's reputation for being tough on parking-rules violators has even spread beyond the city limits.
"I got a call from a person out of state once, who was organizing a convention at the Convention Center," Phillips says. "All the people going to the conference were driving here from out of state and they told the organizer they didn't want to come if they're going to get parking tickets."
Parking and potholes are the common complaints. There are more imaginative ones.
Like people who think strangers are sneaking into their homes to steal food from their refrigerators each night.
"Maybe because it rains so much here, people are inside, thinking too much," suggests complaint investigator Sue Coble.
The complaints "get stranger on new-moon and full-moon days," Wittman says. "You get folks who are just a little different."
But "nothing seems out of the ordinary for us any more," she adds.
Not the homeless woman with a pet rat who has become a bureau "regular."
Not the man who ran into the bureau, grabbed a thermostat and started shaking his body, saying he was extracting energy from the wall.
Not even crooks who keep the bureau's phone number handy.
"I once had an FBI agent call us who said they arrested a guy," Stotler says.
"They found our phone number in the guy's pants pocket. The FBI wanted to know why our phone number was on the guy. I said: `Who knows? Even crooks have complaints.' "
Call and complain The city's Citizens Service Bureau is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 105 Municipal Building, 600 Fourth Ave., Seattle. The bureau can be reached at 206-684-8811.
Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.