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Council criticizes complaint hot line

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / April 11, 2008

Boston's persistent lack of a diminutive but potentially empowering phone number - 311 - drew fire from City Council members, who criticized Mayor Thomas M. Menino for not giving residents an easier way to call City Hall with complaints.

Councilors said the current hotline 617-635-4500, is cumbersome and lacks the simple cachet of 311 - an easily remembered number that is a cousin to 911 and 411 and is commonly used for complaint lines in cities great and small. Council members also said the city needs to move faster to improve its complaint-tracking system.

Their criticism followed a Globe story on Sunday that said the lack of a long-promised tracking system for telephone complaints has left many city residents frustrated. To have their complaints resolved, according to an informal Globe survey of 50 callers, about half had to call multiple times.

Moreover, the city still has no means of ensuring that complaints about everything from missed garbage pickups to graffiti to rodent infestations are addressed, and no way of counting how many complaints are outstanding at any time.

"Some of the frustration about not being able to track complaints is, if it was a restaurant, you could just not go to that restaurant anymore. But government has a monopoly on fixing potholes, so they have no where else to turn," said Councilor Sam Yoon, chairman of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee, which held a hearing yesterday on the hot line and other city technology issues.

Adding a 311 number for the hot line "just seems to make a whole lot more sense," Yoon said.

But Menino's spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said the existing hot line has served the city well.

"We had a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week hot line for residents to call and get a human being long before there was ever a 311," Joyce said.

Menino's chief information officer, Bill Oates, insisted yesterday that the city will have an online tracking system for complaints ready by the end of 2008, but he said the administration has no plans to switch to a 311 number.

He said residents are comfortable with the mayor's long-established hot line. But he also acknowledged a switch to the catchy and simple 311 could elicit a flood of new calls.

"One of the challenges of 311 is we don't want to turn the button on 311 and have a volume [of calls] that will overwhelm the capacity of the call center," Oates said. He said city officials are currently focused on improving the city's response to calls made to the mayor's hot line. "It's a fairly well-known number," Oates said.

Menino said this week that he was placing longtime special assistant Pat Harrington in charge of ensuring that the city's largest departments are properly responding to resident complaints.

City Council members were not convinced. The City Council passed a resolution in December 2005 urging the mayor to make the switch to 311.

At Large Councilor Stephen Murphy said he has been pressing the city to adopt 311 for nearly a decade. And at Large Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is considering running for mayor against Menino next year, accused the administration of dragging its feet on creating the online tracking system.

"For three years, I have called upon the city to use an online assessment tool to improve city services, and for three years my appeals have been met with reassurance from city officials that our current system for tracking constitution requests is already good enough," Flaherty said.

"In the end, our city's stubbornness hurts everyday residents who just want the city to respond to their needs as quickly and as best as we can."

Boston first announced its plans to add a tracking system two years ago.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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