Wednesday, August 22, 2012

See, Click, Fix... Enforce?

One of the first interactive communications that Dunwoody City Hall launched after incorporation was See, Click, Fix, an online application for reporting non-emergency problems to City Hall.  This service has been featured on Channel 46's "Harry Pothole" segments since then.

The premise is easy:  you go to the website on your computer (or via the corresponding smartphone app) and report an issue that you see.  City Hall acknowledges each report as it comes in and assigns it to the right department for resolution.   You can see on a map where other problems have been pointed out,  post comments, get others to comment and receive updates from City Hall.

Most complaints get shunted into two departments:  Public Works or Code Enforcement.  If it's an honest-to-God emergency, don't bother with the app, call 911.

When you're reporting an issue, especially if it goes to Code Enforcement, you, the citizen have some due diligence and some responsibility in order to make your strongest possible case.

1)  TALK to the owner first.  Whether it's a business or a residence, be a human and let the person in charge have a chance to be human right back.  Maybe something is going on you don't know about and the situation is temporary.  If the person is NOT human (read:  rude, dismissive, etc) then step right up to Code Enforcement.

2)  DOCUMENT everything.  If a conversation doesn't lead to a conclusion and it looks like this is going to drag out, start keeping track of conversations and complaints filed.  That can help you if you want to emphasize that a situation has been going on for a long time.  If there's no documentation, and you claim a situation has existed for weeks or months, then it's your word against theirs.

3)  PICTURES are worth a thousand words, literally.   No one else can see that camera in your head, so use the one on your phone.  A single picture of an unacceptable circumstance can sometimes make the difference  between a personality conflict and proof of wrongdoing.  Look at the dots in the above widget - some of those complaints are just a few words, with NO pictures at all to flesh it out.  The posts that do have attached images make a very clear, indisputable case for their position.  If you happen on a problem and want to report it, whip out the camera and take a picture!  Or a video, something visual.

A word about proofs:  when you want to file a complaint about something or someone, the proof is your job.  In our society the burden of proof in any legal proceeding is always on the complainant.  That may be troublesome but worth the effort to get your problem resolved.  You can also get neighbors or other witnesses to contribute their POVs as well.

So, you've decided to go to Code Enforcement.  What makes for a persuasive complaint?

1)  The Facts, All the Facts, Nothing But the Facts.  This is where the documentation comes in.  What exactly is the property owner in question doing wrong?  Spell it out.  Bullet points are helpful.  Include your photos.  Reference the municipal code.  Above all, do NOT "embellish" or exaggerate your claims.  It does nothing for your case but dent your credibility.

2)  Check Your Emotions At the Door.  A formal complaint is not the time for hyperbole, unrelated arguments added as red herrings, fabrications based on personal assumptions, derogatory comments about people themselves, or quasi-philosophical rantings.  These actions do not make your case, they break it.  If your facts are in order, you can be upset and still be in control of yourself.  Your worst-case-scenario is that you get branded as that nutter who can't get his story straight and the authorities make a mental note to ignore you.  Stay calm and keep it about the facts.

3)  Can I Get a Witness?  If other people see the problem you see, get them to add their voices to your concern.  Not everyone wants their name on the internet and that's understandable.  On SCF, votes to emphasize a case or complaints themselves can be made anonymously.  Be aware that all information collected by Code Enforcement or Public Works is public record and may be collected with an Open Records request.

4)  Follow Up Regularly.  If you read through the comments and notes on some of the cases documented in the widget, you'll see the last followup is often months old. Are they resolved?  In progress?  Any changes?  Who knows?   There may be a legal snag on the City's side.  The entity you're complaining about may have a legal case of their own.   Maybe your interpretation of the law is faulty.  Maybe resolution requires resources that the City has to wait for.   You won't know if you let it slide so set a reminder on your calendar to peek in via web or phone on a regular basis.

This is all the reasonable due diligence a citizen needs to make a case.  But it's only one side.  The other side of this equation resides at City Hall.  The appointed or hired officials have their own diligence to perform.  Here's the rub:  does City Hall always see these issues through?  Look at the map widget - there are a lot of "Open" posts that have not been acknowledged and "Acknowledged" posts that have gone unanswered, some for months.  Are the questions not resolved?  Or did someone get tied up and forget to close them?

With a daytime population of 150K, there are going to be conflicts that cannot resolve themselves and need to be assisted by City Hall.  Are they all getting addressed? According to the See Click Fix page for Dunwoody in the past 30 days, 11 new cases were opened, 12 were acknowledged, but only 1 has been closed.  And that's just online using the app, it doesn't count what's filed in person or on the phone.   Stay tuned, there's more....


Unknown said...

I've tried the app on my phone. Limited success. With the app and with city action. They closed the ticket, may have actually fixed the problem--storm sewer clogged near publix in the village--but I've not had the chance to verify.

I've seen equally mixed results from a neighbor who is "friends" with some on council. Hard to say if "apartment for rent" in a single family dwelling is a prosecutable violation or not.

SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

Thanks for visiting. I dont' know about the current municode but in the rewritten zoning (1st draft) renting garage, basement, etc apartments to the general public is not permitted. (apartment being defined as a living area w/ its own kitchen apart from the primary kitchen in the home.) Allowances are made for adult children, other family members, or live-in employees: someone attached to the homeowning family.

There hasn't been any discussion yet regarding penalties or other enforcement. I hope that's on the way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing awareness of the 'See, Click, Fix" application into view.

I like the general idea of this site, but find that awarding 'points' to those who participate a needless incentive.

SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

One point I wanted to emphasize due to some email exchanges I've had since this post:

Just because someone has a complaint, doesn't mean that they're guaranteed to be in the right or that the person or thing they find annoying is violating the law.

I tried to allude to that at various points - as in, cite the municipal code, document your observations, especially with pictures, etc etc etc.

Sometimes you have an honest-to-God code violation, and sometimes you have people who just don't like what the folks next door are doing. It would help if the See, Click, Fix comment feature were used to clarify that from both sides.