Fielding constituent complaints full time Balto. Co. staff has dealt with about 3,000 gripes

April 01, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Six months into an effort to solve a nightmarish drainage problem near her home on the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, Frances Turner found someone who could get her help.

"You should call this woman Winnie Carpenter," she was told by a friend, a chimney sweep who had just cleaned Ms. Carpenter's Monkton chimney. Ms. Carpenter, she heard, was going to work for the new county executive, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, and maybe she could help.

The problem -- water draining into Maryland along Keeney Road from a new housing development across the state line -- isn't history yet, but should be resolved next winter, thanks in part to Ms. Carpenter's efforts as a specialist in constituent service.

"It just made our voices a little louder," Ms. Turner said, expressing thanks for help the county provided.

Her sense of satisfaction is what constituent service is all about -- the bread and butter of political officialdom.

Fielding such complaints and getting the ball rolling to address them is the $27,500-a-year job of Ms. Carpenter, 43, a north county community activist, and Paula Houck, 44, a 16-year county employee from Reisterstown who worked in Mr. Ruppersberger's election campaign.

They are supervised by former Ruppersberger campaign manager Robert J. Barrett, who also helps them address their toughest problems. In 16 months, they've handled more than 3,000 complaints.

"We do the work of five men," Ms. Houck boasted -- referring to the five higher-paid men who handled constituent complaints as aides to Mr. Ruppersberger's predecessor, Roger B. Hayden.

Louis F. Waidner, one of the former Hayden aides, says he thinks there were more complaint calls during his tenure. He noted that Mr. Hayden encouraged them with monthly face-to-face meetings with constituents and the complaint cards he handed out at public meetings.

But unhappy countians don't confine their calls to the executive's office. Dozens of complaints go each week to the staff aides of the seven county councilmen, and to the county departments which actually do the work to solve most problems.

The executive's two-woman, computer-aided complaint system is the result of the "less-is-more" syndrome of business and government in recent years.

In 1992, Mr. Hayden abolished the county's Citizens Assistance Unit, a four-person central complaint office created in 1975 that employed college students to take complaints at night. In 1991, they handled 6,636 complaints.

Most calls have not been as tough to resolve as the Keeney Road issue. Some are just funny.

Ms. Houck said one woman called to complain that her apartment house neighbors were deliberately flushing their toilets when she was in the shower, scalding her. She wanted the county executive to make them stop.

Most calls are routine complaints about dumped trash, missing traffic signs, potholes, child support, missing welfare checks, snow removal in the winter and tall grass in the summer.

A few stick out in the women's minds -- like the elderly woman who called from her assisted-living home to politely inform them that she had inherited the Towson courthouse that houses the executive and council offices, and she wanted everyone out in 30 days.

"You listen to them," Ms. Houck said, adding that she called back and spoke to the woman's doctor. "You talk to them all the same," she said.

"You have to give them a light at the end of the tunnel, recognize the validity of their issue," Ms. Carpenter said. "Paula and I really like people."

Whatever the issue, the women say they return every phone call within 24 hours, and they work each call themselves, checking back with the caller and with department contacts they've developed to make sure that if anything can be done, it is.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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