Like many other public works departments, we received our share of complaints over this winter season. Every year there are a few that stick in your mind and are hard to forget. Usually for me, these are the complaints involving an angry tirade from an irate citizen. This year the two that remained with me came from two different people and involved no yelling at all.
The first was from a citizen in a neighboring city. In a statement to the local paper, he expressed his disagreement with our council's decision to spend a large sum of money on a particular project in our city. He felt that instead the money should be spent fixing his road.
The second complaint came from another citizen in the neighboring city. It was during a snowstorm, and he insisted that we immediately plow his road in front of his home.
Now, the key point in both of these complaints is that the person complaining did not live in our city, and addressing the complaint would have required our city to perform some service for them in their city. Initially, the first reaction to these types of complaints might be to either ignore them or just shake our head. In our case, we obviously could not address each person's complaint because our city is not responsible for performing work or services in another city unless there was a pre-existing agreement, which in this case there was not. However, I could not stop thinking about these requests.
From the calm, confident tone and manner in which each person expressed his concern, I think that each truly believed that he was making a valid request. If so, this is proof of a significant lack of understanding by the average citizen of how local government operates. (Actually, I have always suspected this, but now I have a specific instance to which I can refer.) I just cannot comprehend that somewhere in our upbringing, there is such a lack of education about how our governmental system works. Such a lack that someone living in one city would actually believe that another city has any type of responsibility to provide them services.
Everyone has become so much more dependent on government as families move apart and support systems break down. This imposes an even greater need for citizens to understand, trust, and get involved in their local government. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Instead, this lack of understanding creates frustration for the citizen whose needs are not met and creates more issues and challenges for those of us working in public works as we try to take the time to explain the parameters in which we operate.
What is the answer? Whose responsibility is it to educate the public? Some public works departments across the country, as understaffed and unfunded as many of us are, do try to make an effort to do our part in spreading information about our operations. The American Public Works Association, APWA, promotes Public Works Week and offers advice and tools to implement an informational event in your community on their website at www.apwa.net.