From Dirty Bathrooms To Tee Times, A Hotline To The County
Bergen's new constituent services phone line getting good early reviews from residents
A Fair Lawn man was worried about a dead tree that towered over a busy road. A former nun was upset about dirty bathrooms in Wild Duck Pond in Ridgewood. A Teaneck golfer was frustrated because he never could get the choice tee times on the county’s public courses.
These weren’t issues that shook the foundations of Bergen County government. But the situations troubled some everyday citizens. And their complaints, they felt, had fallen through the cracks.
There were scores of other people like them, folks who said government officials never returned their messages, or failed to keep their promises when they did call back. Some say their trail of complaints stretched back for years.
So when they heard about Bergen County’s new constituent hotline, they said they were somewhat skeptical. But they gave it a try anyway. After all, these were people who didn’t give up easily.
“They actually called back,’’ said Virginia Franco, the former nun who visits county-owned Wild Duck Pond nearly every day.
When Franco complained about a lack of toilet paper in the park’s ladies room, she said the supply was restocked the next day. When she called about an algae build-up on the pond, the green growth was soon cleared.
“They’re on the ball,’’ said Franco, a Hackensack resident who has become a regular caller to the hotline (201-336-7330).
Five other Bergen County residents who have used the constituent hotline in the past six months also praised the program, saying their complaints were addressed or their questions answered. All of them were impressed that they even received a return call.
County executive Kathleen Donovan announced the creation of the hotline in April during a speech on her first 100 days in office. The phone rings at the offices of Donovan’s chief of staff, Jeanne Baratta, and her executive assistant, Lauren St. Helaire is the person who answers most calls.
“At first, I thought I was going to get overwhelmed,’’ St. Helaire said, “but it hasn’t been too bad.”
More than 200 people have called so far, officials said. The county keeps a log on all constituent calls, including entries describing what action was taken. Each Bergen County town also has its own file.
Sometimes the callers are angry, sometimes they end up in tears. The conversations can last a few seconds or as long as an hour, St. Helaire said.
“We find that a lot of people will call with personal problems over things we can’t help them with at the county level,’’ Baratta said. “A lot of the time, they just want someone to listen to them.’’
Often, the hotline get calls from people with troubles that involve state or municipal government issues, Baratta said.
“We don’t just say, ‘I can’t help you,’’’ Baratta said. “We take the extra step to try to find out who can help them.’’
Over the years, the Palmieri family from Ridgefield has called borough, county and state officials about the damage a construction crew did to their front walkway while repairing Broad Avenue. The couple has lived in the same home since 1944 and never had it looked as bad as it did when the road workers ruined their walkway and decorative entrance wall more than five years ago, they said.
“Everybody said they were going to fix it and nobody came to fix it,’’ Frances Palmieri said.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,’’ said Samuel Palmieri.
They were desperate and doubtful when they called the county hotline. They still weren’t convinced when someone came out to check the damage. Other officials had visited them and did nothing afterwards, they said. But they were ecstatic earlier this year when a crew came out to repair their walkway.
“That wasn’t even a county road,’’ Baratta said, pointing out that Broad Avenue is owned by the state. The New Jersey Department of Transportation was planning to wait until after all work on Broad Avenue was completed before it would fix the Palmieri's walkway, officials said. But the county convinced the state to change its plans to accommodate the senior citizens.
Don Oliver of Fair Lawn also had complaints that started in the middle of last decade. That was roughly when he noticed a dead tree along Century Road in a county park that covers parts of Saddle Brook, Fair Lawn and Paramus.
“It was turning white, like it was almost petrified,’’ Oliver said. He decided to alert officials before the tree, which was more than 30 feet tall, fell across the busy road near which it stood. County parks officials didn’t seem to share his urgency, he said.
“I never got a response,’’ Oliver said.
Then Oliver, who says he is registered as an undeclared voter, saw Donovan at a wake and told her about the tree.
“She said, ‘Send me an email,’’’ he recalled.
“When any political person says send me an email, you don’t know what to expect,’’ Oliver said. “They must get hundreds of them a day.’’
Oliver’s email was passed along to the constituent hotline and soon he received a call from a parks officials asking to him to show him the tree in question.
“He said it was going to take a little while because of their budget,’’ Oliver recalled. “Three weeks later, I’m driving down that road and the tree is gone.’’
Not every call produces such dramatic results. Kirk Mitchell of Teaneck simply was suspicious about the county’s phone system for tee-time reservations at its public golf courses.
Every week, he would call when the next set of reservations would become available. Every week, he said, he spent 90 minutes getting busy signals. Whenever he finally got through, all the best morning slots were taken, according to Mitchell.
“I wanted to know if they were giving them all to their friends or something,’’ said Mitchell. “I was shocked they called back. They told me how it all worked, how many lines there were, what the percentages were. I’m suspicious, but had to take them for their word.’’
Some callers simply are looking for information. Bob Murphy of Mahwah called in September wanting to know when the replacement of a nearby county bridge would be complete. He had noticed work had stalled and was frustrated by the delay. For Murphy and others in his neighborhood, the closure was a major inconvenience.
“Now we have to drive five miles out of our way to get to Allendale, that’s where we do most of our shopping,’’ said Murphy. “That bridge was how we got to Route 17. Now it’s a five-mile detour each way.’’
Murphy’s phone call didn’t push the project onto the fast track. County officials explained to him that the delay stemmed from changes in the utility work. They let him know construction resumed on October 18 and they said the work would be done by the middle of December.
“They found out what was happening and they got back to me,’’ Murphy said. “I can’t ask for more than that.’’
No one calls the hotline more than Big Mama does. A daily visitor to Wild Duck Pond, she has called to say the ice cream vendor was rude, to complain about dogs being left off their leashes, to alert officials that someone was bashing a locked pool entrance with a baseball bat.
Big Mama (That’s the old motorcycle nickname used by Franco, the former nun.) says the park has special meaning to her.
“That’s where my Dad took me to tell me what I need to do in life,’’ she said.
Big Mama calls the constituent hotline so often that she’s been named the unofficial “Constituent of the Week.” In fact, Baratta has Big Mama’s picture on her bulletin board.
“I keep them on their toes,’’ said Big Mama.