Finding Local Officials When You Need Help

Your local government is the answer to a lot of questions about your home and your neighborhood — all you have to do is ask.

Your local government officials can answer a lot of questions about your home and your neighborhood--all you have to do is ask. Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images

From getting a pothole filled on your street to finding out code requirements for your new bathroom, there’s a local government official who can help. The thought of calling around, though, trying to get someone’s attention at City Hall, can seem like a good way to drive yourself crazy. But it doesn’t have to be.

More and more cities, counties, and townships are making it easier to find what you need and to monitor how well they’re responding to requests. And whether you’re a community organizer or a concerned home owner, you shouldn’t feel like you’re heading into uncharted waters. More than half of citizens had contact with local government within the last year, according to Tom Miller, president of the National Research Center.

Getting started

Every city and town is unique, of course, but basic services for the community and home owners tend to be similar. Local governments typically have a version of these agencies:

Code Enforcement: Also known in some places as the Department of Buildings, this is where you call about the neighbor with 100 cats or a back porch that’s falling down.

Parks and Recreation: Typically responsible for maintaining and developing local playgrounds, parks, and other recreational amenities.

Police: If the party down the block is still going strong at 3 a.m., dial the non-emergency number for your local law enforcement.

Public Works: When you need a dangling tree limb removed after a big storm or the street repaved, call here. In a bigger city, this may be broken into specific entities: streets, sanitation, sewers, forestry, and so on.

Recorder of Deeds: The county is usually responsible for housing deeds, and this is the place for a copy of yours or any related questions.

Let your fingers do the walking

If it isn’t obvious who’ll handle your problem, scan the government section of the phone book for the number to the city clerk’s office (or alternatively the local government’s main information number). Ask the clerk or operator who would be able to give you a hand with your particular needs. Another good option if you want to suggest improvements to your area—more playgrounds, for example, or less graffiti—is to start with a community development department, which can be a great catch-all agency.

Better yet, many municipalities now operate a 311 service. A call to that number gets you an operator who can take most standard requests or direct you to the right department. In 2008, 42% of U.S. local governments had either implemented a 311 system (15%) or were considering adopting one (27%), according to an International City/County Management Association survey

Another increasingly easy option is to go digital. Even the smallest towns usually have a website these days, so a quick Internet search should get you where you want to go. A section of the website called “Departments” is a typical spot to find your options. Tech-forward municipalities like Hyattsville, Md. can even take your request online, with a system that assigns a request code to your complaint or question. Since the system generates reports to managers on the speed and effectiveness of the response, you can probably feel better about this route than even a phone call.

Get what you want

Once you’ve engaged the right official, be polite, be clear, and be sure to ask about the process. What’s involved with getting it handled? How long will it likely take to accomplish? That way, if the city is required to wait four weeks for a neighbor to remove an immobile, rusty car from their property, you aren’t feeling ignored after two weeks have passed and it’s still sitting there.

If your request is for something bigger—making your street a one-way, for instance, or more after-school programs in the local park—call the right department and see if there are already plans underway. If not, put a request in writing, and get the letter or petition signed by neighbors as well. Submit it to the department responsible for the change and with your local elected official.

Keep your eye on your goal. If you’re worried about cars zooming down your block, speed bumps might be your answer, but don’t become married to that cure. The transportation department may have another fix in mind, so be flexible.

When all else fails, take your request up the chain of command. If you’ve been told your building permit was supposed to have arrived in a week, and it hasn’t, start by calling back and asking for a supervisor. Still can’t get satisfaction? Then complain to your local elected officials—the mayor, city council members, the city manager—who are often very attuned to the needs of a disgruntled voter.