Paving the way for citizen complaints

Official earns praise as problem solver

June 18, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Betsy McMillion used to notice flowers and trees on long drives. Now, all she can see are the cracks in the pavement, the bent signs and the litter.

"It's a sickness!" the Elkridge resident says with a laugh.

But completely understandable. Twelve years with the Howard County Department of Public Works will do that to a person, especially a person with McMillion's job.

As public education coordinator, she is immersed in citizen complaints and queries, big and small, about public works matters - from drainage to graffiti to broken sidewalks.

She's even got "regulars" - folks who call frequently about this, that and the other thing. They see the amiable, energetic woman as their link to county administration, the person who will get problems fixed.

"Betsy is an example of the way government is supposed to work," said Niel Carey, an Ellicott City resident who contacted her recently about paving work that "seemed less than desirable."

"You can always count on her," he said.

This is what he means: If the call is a request for service, McMillion contacts the officials who can get the job done. She lets the caller know when there's a resolution to the problem. If it takes a while, she checks in with the resident regularly with updates.

`Start to finish'

"If you call in here, we track this from start to finish," McMillion said. "There's nothing worse than getting transferred from one place to another in county government, and unfortunately, that happens. So we try to stop it here."

"If you call up and your recycling wasn't picked up, an inspector goes out - boom - and finds out why," she said.

From Jan. 1 through the end of May, 375 calls - including requests and complaints - came through her office. Most people e-mail her. Average citizens make up the bulk of McMillion's constituency, but County Council members and their staffers call with a lot of questions.

Most of the requests come from Ellicott City, and that's partly because of one man: Ed Lilley, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation. He's McMillion's main regular.

"I know that she'll take care of whatever problem I have," said Lilley, who has alerted her to broken curbs, trash that didn't get collected and downed signs, the sorts of things people in Ellicott City's quaint historic district don't want to see.

"She's amazing," he said. "She even took time one day to walk in the pouring rain to look at ... sidewalk areas that had problems."

But sometimes there's not much McMillion can do about a complaint, except explain why government does what it does.

Take, for instance, snow removal - the No. 1 subject she has gotten calls about this year.

Invariably, people will call McMillion burning mad because they have to leave for work and their cul-de-sac isn't plowed. Main thoroughfares get priority over smaller neighborhood streets, she tells them, so it can take a while to get to that cul-de-sac.

It's the big-picture perspective, and "it's not going to please everyone," she said.

Slow gears

It also frustrates callers that the governmental gears turn slowly, at least when it comes to requests for big projects. It takes time to get those things in the budget, she has to tell folks.

And there just isn't the money for every request.

But members of the Burleigh Manor Homeowners Association, Sections I, II - one of several community groups in that Ellicott City neighborhood - have nothing but good things to say about McMillion.

They gave her a call when lights went out on Centennial Lane, when trees needed to be trimmed and when traffic safety became a concern.

Helen Carey, the association's treasurer, is impressed that McMillion never seems to mind dealing with nuts-and-bolts problems. "It's not like it's a chore for her, it's like she likes to be of help," Carey said.

McMillion is an anomaly in public works, a person with a marketing degree in a department full of engineers.

She began working in the department in the mid-1980s after 12 years in private industry as a secretary, an office manager and a marketer. To join public works, she had to take a pay cut and start as an administrative assistant, but she saw a government job as a way to do something worthwhile for people.

"I know that sounds hokey," she said, sitting in her office decorated with a fake traffic light and other public works paraphernalia, "but honest to God, that's true." Except for two years as office manager for the County Council, she has been with the department since 1986.

Worthy projects

McMillion took on the public education position when it was created two years ago.

Throughout her time in the department, she has used her marketing background to get people to buy into projects she considered worthy.

Like Adopt-a-Road. When she coordinated the program for about a year, she helped increase from 25 to 100 the number of highways and other roads kept tidy by volunteers.

Or recycling.

A couple years ago, McMillion went into schools, pitching the concept to children while wearing plastic bags filled with recyclable trash, which jiggled and clanked as she walked.

"People thought I was nuts, but it worked," said McMillion, a committed recycler who even separates her tea bags - paper part in the bin, tea leaves in the compost.

Bottom line, she sees herself as an educator who tries to help people understand government while striving to fix their problems.

She has found that people tend to view county government as unhelpful. She knows the system isn't perfect, but the employees try hard, she insists.

"We've got a lot of good people working in county government, and sometimes we get a bad rap," McMillion said. "I want to change that."

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