Monday, January 9, 2012

How Many Public Works Guys Does It Take to Change a Light?

About a month ago I did a post on my recent experience serving—albeit briefly—on a redevelopment committee for the City of Vista, CA where I live. It was, to say the least, an interesting, although brief, experience. If you recall, a month after I was appointed, the City disbanded the Committee.

Well, since then I have had a wonderful opportunity to get “re-acquainted” with the machinations of the City of Vista. Here’s my sordid, but true tale. It all started on October 25, 2011.

You see folks, there’s a street light just in front of my apartment building. I mean if the wind is right I can spit on it—that’s how close it is. In mid-0ctober I noticed that it was dark along our street—really dark. Now, the City had been threatening/promising or whatever for months that it would have to turn off most of the residential streetlights as a budget saving measure. But, the light would come on. Then in about 5 minutes it would fizzle out. A few minutes later it would sputter and come back on. It did this all night long—well at least as late as I’ve ever chosen to stay up.

I put up with it for a few nights. When it’s out, it’s dark along our street. Really dark. Dangerous dark—there are always pedestrians going up and down the sidewalks. So I decided to do something about it.

But what to do? I went into the City’s website which is decidedly not “user-friendly”, almost as if the City acknowledges that it has to have a public website but that it would really prefer if no citizen actually used it to get information or contact their local government. I was looking for the Department of Public Works or some other way to contact someone who could do something about my streetlight. Finally, I stumbled on a “feedback” link which let’s someone send a generic message to the “city”.

I sent about a 2 sentence message (I was limited to about 300 characters, which for me is not much) and much to my surprise within an hour I had a response. Not just one response but 2! The second one was from a project assistant in public works who actually read what I had sent and who said she would check it out.

A little while later I got a second e-mail from her telling me that there wasn’t a streetlight out in front of my building but that there was one on the other side of the street about 100 yards away. Hmmmm, no, there’s one in front of the building all right. What to do? I was encountering bureaucracy.

So I took out my camera and took a few pictures showing the light from my balcony and then went across the street to photograph the light with my building and its address in the background. These I attached to a new e-mail. Oops! The city official sent me back a response saying that she would update the city’s map and put in a “work order” which should be taken care of in 6-7 “business days”. OK, 2 weeks.

Two weeks go by. Nothing happens. In fact, on October 30 (the day before Halloween and trick or treating) I sent another e-mail to the person suggesting that it would be nice if the light could be fixed before Halloween and all the extra kids and families who would be walking up and down the street the next night. No response—even though I played the “public safety trump card”.

So I waited some more. Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t sit out on my balcony all day, every day waiting for a city crew to come by. I kept on with my life but each night, I would grumble and complain while watching the light “bzzzzzt” off and on, off and on all night long.

The positive side of it was that at night when the light was on we could get a much better view of the stars in the dark sky. It was in its own way pleasant—but not really safe.

About the 5th or so of November, I called the Department of Public works and talked to a nice guy who also told me that there was no light in front of my apartment. And then, just as quickly told me that there was (he had just pulled up my original e-mail proving it’s existence). He also pledged that he was updating the map and would schedule the work—apparently it hadn’t happened the first time. And so I waited. And waited. Still nothing.

So, along about mid-November I dug out the big guns. I prepared another e-mail. This one (after doing some more online research) was addressed to the Mayor, City Manager and Director of Public Works. Wow! Even though City Hall is a whopping 3 blocks away, one could almost hear the gears of the system screech and grind as these officials seemed to drop what they were doing and take action.

In less than an hour I had an e-mail from the City Manager AND the Public Works director pledging action the following day. I don’t think I was very snotty to them in my e-mail—OK maybe a bit sarcastic. And maybe it helped that I sent the pictures of the light, along with a new photo of the light at night, burned out.

Anyway, there were e-mails and promises. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought.

Let’s fast forward to the very next morning. It’s 8:10 a.m. I don’t work until 2 p.m. So I’m checking out e-mail and the blogs and the news and drinking coffee—still in my pajamas.

My phone rings. “Walter, this is Jim Howell, the Director of Public Works here in Vista,” a voice tells me.

Now, my first thought is that it’s pretty early for a city employee to be on the phone. The guy’s voice is a bit hard to hear because there’s a diesel truck out in front of the building idling.

“I’m standing out in front of your building and we’re fixing your light now,” he proceeded to tell me. “Do you have a minute so I can explain the situation to you.”

“Hold on just a minute, Jim,” I replied. “Yep, I see you. Tell you what, I’ll come down and we can talk rather than on the phone.”

There’s this tall, professional guy in a shirt and tie and leather jacket standing across the street talking into a cell phone. I went out the door and down the stairs—still in my pajamas.

There’s a boom-truck with several guys right by the streetlight and they’re actually working. OK, so how many city workers does it take to change a light bulb? A total this day of 5—one in the bucket, one to run the controls on the truck, 2 to keep an eye on traffic and the Director of Public Works. Damn! This has got to be a fairly pricey light bulb change!

So I went down and talked to the guy while my wife took my picture in my jammies. He explained to me that they had actually done some work on the light (and showed me a work order) on October 10 but apparently didn’t realize that the ballast was bad.

OK, that’s fine with me. I’m just glad that they’re getting to it. Now, I know that Vista, California is a bigger city than I’ve lived in most of my life and that by California standards at 100,000 it’s not that big but…

Yeah, “but”…I still didn’t think that it should take the better part of a month to fix this and to have to convince people that there is, indeed, a streetlight in front of my address. I can’t help but wonder whether it would have been accomplished any quicker if I lived in a more “upscale” neighborhood—but that’s not fair to the folks at City Hall.

But these guys showed up and didn’t laugh at me out talking to the Director of Public Works in my pajamas. And, start to finish, it only took a month.

I guess I’m just getting too old and grumpy but it was kind of cool seeing that big old truck hoist a guy up in the air to change a light bulb and then hang around watching it for a half hour to make sure that it worked.

No comments:

Post a Comment