Mount Airy's hang-up CARROLL COUNTY

January 05, 1993

If you call Mount Airy Town Hall with a problem and get rude and abusive with the town's employees, the next sound you are likely to hear will be a dial tone. Recently, Mayor Gerald Johnson gave permission for three women who answer the town's phones to hang up when they receive anonymous harassing calls. The mayor got several seconds worth of the 15 minutes of fame due him when Washington's salty radio personality, "the Greaseman," spoke to him on the air about the town's new policy.

Mayor Johnson is quick to point out that the majority of callers are polite. However, there is a small group that has subjected the women -- who happen to be exceedingly polite and helpful -- to coarse and insulting language.

It is not surprising that we have reached this state of affairs. With the popularity of talk radio and newspaper columns that allow callers to vent their spleen without taking responsibility for what they say, it isn't a big leap to phone public employees anonymously and heap abuse on them. We have reached the point in society where people take their cues on etiquette from Rush Limbaugh, not Miss Manners.

Part of the problem is that public employees at all levels of government are no longer held in high esteem. The public perceives them as overpaid and under-worked, and never doing anything right. In some large government bureaucracies, assisting the public often does seem an alien concept. However, in small town governments, most public employees are quite solicitous when citizens need information or help.

The other part of the problem is that government civil servants are receiving the brunt of hostility that should be appropriately directed toward elected officials. It is a rare public official who answers his or her own phone. Most calls from the public are screened. As a result, the more aggravated types take their frustration out on the nearest available civil servant.

The fact is that the people who answer phones in government offices are no different than people who answer them in private offices. There are good ones, and, unfortunately, a few bad ones.

Hanging up on people is a last resort, but maybe Mayor Johnson has the right idea. People who like to dole out phone abuse aren't going to get much of a thrill if there is no one on the receiving end.

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