Monday, November 28th, 2011
A friend who lives in New Jersey sent me this guest post.
It covers several vivid examples of frustrating civil disservice. In a period of high unemployment, with thousands willing to take the place of the rude, inefficient staff she describes, I wonder how these people keep their jobs. They also seem to have no idea of who the boss is.
After the freak late-October storm, the debris from our decimated trees was piled so high along both sides of our narrow road that cars could barely navigate. I called town hall to find out whether the township would be collecting the debris or if we, the homeowners, would need to find a way to dispose of it. I was told that the township would collect it all within three weeks.
The township underestimated how long it would take to collect the mountains of debris in our hard-hit town. As our yard services collected leaves and put them in the road for collection, it became almost impossible to drive down our one-way road without damaging the car. We were among the last in our town to have power restored, so I had hoped we would be among the first to get our branches collected. A dream, as it turned out. The county and the towns around us began to clean their streets, but we saw the piles get bigger as more deadfall and leaves came down and were added to the piles.
On the day before the three weeks expired, I came home to find my street blocked. I didn’t mind because it meant the township was finally collecting the debris. It also meant that all traffic had to go the wrong way up my one-way road. So anyone leaving home and heading out the correct way was encountering a neighbor trying to get home and coming the wrong way. With next to no road left to start with, it was a disaster.
At the end of the day, the crew had barely cleaned up in front of the first four houses. Municipal employees are not known for working weekends, so I assumed it would be Monday before they resumed. And at the rate they were working, it would take a week just to clean our road. By then, town hall was closed so I called the police station to find out what information they had.
I got a snippy female desk officer who basically told me that the township was doing this out of the goodness of its heart and had no obligation to assume what should’ve been the homeowners’ responsibility. So I should just be patient. She repeated that over and over. So I lost my cool, developed a little attitude of my own and finally hung up on her.
The more I thought about what she’d said, the madder I became. The officer’s attitude spoke volumes about the sense of “us” vs. “them” you see so often in local government. And she clearly felt part of “us” – meaning municipal government — as opposed to “them” – meaning residents.
The municipal government is not some paterfamilias dispensing favors. It comprises elected officials, who serve at the will of the residents, and municipal workers, who are hired to serve those same residents. Their salaries and the costs associated with providing services are covered by the taxes we residents pay. My township is in Essex County, NJ, which means those taxes are pretty hefty. The township, then, is us – the people who reside there.
The whole thing recalled a situation several years back. One of our neighbors (a serial “flipper” who got caught when the economy headed south) tried to get four variances to subdivide an unsubdividable property. At one of the endless hearings, I found myself making a speech to the planning board members about the essence of their job: to represent the rights of the many against the rights of the few. Those of us opposed to the subdivision and what it meant for our neighborhood – the majority of households around the property in question – did not have the sense that the planning board understood that. All too often lately, it seems that elected officials and the civil (too often uncivil) servants they hire forget who the boss really is: We, the voting, tax-paying people.
Have you had such an experience with local authorities? Any ideas of how taxpayers can get efficient, cordial service from them? How do taxpayers cajole civil servants to do their jobs and represent their interest? Do you think they realize who the bosses are?