City tightens procedures to check workers' claims

After false reports found, 311 center to call residents and verify finished work

February 05, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's 311 call center will start phoning back residents who ask for nonemergency services such as graffiti removal to make sure workers are performing the tasks they say they're completing.

Lisa N. Allen, manager of the call center, said the city would randomly check workers' claims after a Sun article published yesterday showed that city and utility workers recently filed eight questionable reports that problems had been resolved.

The eight reports were among those addressing 50 requests for basic services, such as towing abandoned cars and repairing potholes, that the newspaper tracked from Nov. 21 to Jan. 27.

The inaccurate reports meant that Mayor Martin O'Malley's computerized CitiStat data analysis system - which monitors the performance of city agencies - overstated the speed with which the city was taking care of the complaints.

Allen said the timing of the change is coincidental, and that the 311 center has been discussing improving its "quality control" since at least September.

"We will be moving soon to start the callbacks to measure the quality of the call center's performance and monitor what's going on in the field," Allen said. "We want to make sure the work is done."

O'Malley - who created the 311 call center about a year ago - said he discussed the newspaper article during his Cabinet meeting yesterday and asked his department heads to check their employees' work more often.

The mayor said he asked his staff to investigate three of the four false reports attributed to city workers - two saying graffiti had been removed and one saying an alley behind the 1900 block of W. Franklin St. had been cleared. O'Malley said the other four questionable reports were for streetlight repairs, which are the responsibility of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"I told [city department heads] that they need to be doing their own audits and that they can't just rely on CitiStat to do it all," O'Malley said.

"I also told them to take corrective action against anyone who put in a phantom abatement," O'Malley said.

So far, no employees have been identified as responsible for the false reports. Tracking down who submits bad information to CitiStat is difficult because the system doesn't record which employee calls to report that a case has been closed, city officials said.

George Winfield, the city's director of public works, said the article has prompted his department to start recording names.

"The way it works now, when someone calls back and says a job has been completed, we just take their word for it," Winfield said. "As a result of this, we are making a change. ... It will be the supervisors' responsibility to verify that work is actually done."

Meanwhile, city work crews responded to the Sun investigation by cleaning several problem areas highlighted by the article.

Laborers sandblasted graffiti off a wall of the city's Benton Office Building on Baltimore Street, a stairway in the Preston Gardens park in Mount Vernon, and a statue of James L. Ridgely (a 19th-century city councilman and state legislator) in Harlem Park. They painted over graffiti on a bench in Mount Vernon square.

The workers boarded up an abandoned house at 519 N. Mount St. in West Baltimore that had been open to vagrants.

And they rolled out heavy equipment to haul away three refrigerators, five televisions, a washing machine and a mound of garbage in the alley behind Franklin Street.

"I was real glad to see all that junk go - now we just have to keep the alley clean," said Van Brooks, a 42-year-old longshoreman who owns a nearby rowhouse. "It's one thing for the city to clean the alley because of a news article. It's another thing for the neighborhood to keep the alley clean," Brooks said.

Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE, said yesterday that the utility has changed its reporting method to the CitiStat system so that it no longer says a case is closed before a streetlight is fixed. The utility used to report that a case was closed as soon as an internal work order number was issued.

The change was not spurred by The Sun's article, Foy said, but was something that had been discussed for a long time.

"The general point [of the change] is to more accurately reflect the status of the job," Foy said.

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