Featured Foul-Ups

This is every public official's nightmare: The San Francisco Chronicle has started running daily photos and brief articles about government foul-ups. The first was a picture of graffiti defacing a city park's murals.
December 2002
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

This is every public official's nightmare: The San Francisco Chronicle has started running daily photos and brief articles about government foul-ups. The first was a picture of graffiti defacing a city park's murals. Another was a photo of a classroom in Oakland where the lights and air conditioner worked off the same switch, so if the teacher wanted to turn on the lights, he also had to turn on the air conditioner. Making matters worse, the air conditioner had such a noisy fan that students couldn't hear the teacher. (For quiet, the teacher sometimes turned out the lights and used candles or an industrial lamp.) Digging the barb a little deeper, the newspaper reports how long the problem has existed and gives the name, title, phone number and e-mail address of the public official responsible for fixing the problem. "Every day, we will highlight something that's broken or malfunctioning, something you're paying to get fixed, but it's not fixed," the paper said as it began the series. That includes, it promised, "broken BART elevators, non-functioning public toilets, traffic hazards, major potholes, anything that seems to be easy to remedy but where nothing is getting done." It appears to be working. The day after the Chronicle reported the noisy-classroom problem, workers showed up to rewire the room. To its credit, the newspaper reported that, too.


If your town's new slogan isn't working, how about changing the town's name to something a little classier? The village trustees of Fox River Valley Gardens, Illinois, recently voted to change their community's name to Port Barrington. They didn't exactly pick the new name out of thin air. They named it after Barrington, 12 miles away, a somewhat larger and more desirable community. How desirable? Barrington has been around since 1865, but beginning in 1957 other villages nearby incorporated and began using the Barrington name. Hence, we now have South Barrington, Barrington Hills, North Barrington, Lake Barrington and, if the state agrees to the name change, Port Barrington. "At one point a resident said we should have copyrighted the name," says Barrington's village manager, "then we could get royalties." The name change isn't being hailed by everyone in Fox River Valley Gardens, though. Said a beer store owner, "It's like they say, 'a taste for champagne with beer pocketbooks.' If they want to be part of Barrington, they should move to Barrington." He added, "The new order wants to give the village more stature, but a pumpkin's a pumpkin."


Weston, Florida, near Miami, is a thoroughly planned community with a couple of country clubs, some well-regarded schools and 115 distinct neighborhoods on 10,000 acres. It has churches, synagogues, jogging trails, restaurants and retail for its 56,000 residents, along with a city government featuring one of the coolest municipal Web sites around www.ci.weston.fl.us. It's lacking one thing, though: a cemetery. "We simply forgot," says Weston's developer. It isn't the only place that has forgotten to plan for the dearly departed. "There's enough cemetery space for 20 to 25 years" in South Florida, says an official with the state cemetery trade association. After that, "you'd have to go in the Everglades." There are some municipal cemeteries around, but most of them are already filled or spoken for. The town of Pembroke Pines thought about building a city cemetery not long ago but backed out when it realized it would cost $2 million. "There would be a need to sell thousands of grave sites, and the period for it to break even would take a really long time," said a town official. So, given the age of many Floridians (13 percent of Dade County residents and 16 percent of Broward residents are over age 65), what do they do with the dead there? Ship them elsewhere or cremate them. Twenty years ago, 6,600 South Floridians were cremated. In 2001, 13,300 were.


Here's a bright idea: What if every time a pedestrian stepped into a crosswalk, the crossing lit up like an airport runway, warning motorists to stop? Something like that is being tried in several Washington, D.C., suburbs, and early results are encouraging. "A lot of the driving public is like, what is it, these lights coming from the roadway?" said a traffic engineer in Fairfax City, Virginia. "It causes them to slow down. It works real well, especially at night." The "intelligent crosswalks" use infrared sensors to detect motion and activate flashing lights buried in the road. Why buried lights and not yellow caution lights over the roadway? Because motorists tend to tune out the overhead lights. "Because the [overhead] lights are flashing all the time, they become part of the scenery," a transportation planner explained. "The in-pavement light is more visible to the motorists.... It tells the motorist something unusual is going on." The intelligent crosswalk couldn't come at a better time, as cities are trying to encourage more people to walk--and when pedestrian fatalities are so high. In the Washington area, more than 265 pedestrians were killed from 1997 to 2000.