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Fri., Sept. 12, 2008

Our View: Residents’ outrage can indicate deeper issues

The city’s garbage trucks are returning to north Spokane alleys next week. Will the affected 2,500 customers commemorate the event each September, the way people celebrate the return of the swallows each spring to San Juan Capistrano in California? Unlikely. Yet just as the return of the sparrows carries meaning greater than a flock of birds, so the return of alley garbage pickup represents the complexities of municipal life.

The lessons learned from the city’s alley pickup controversy can be used by other municipalities. Leaders and staffers need to be alert to signs a simple issue might turn complex and costly. Look for:

•Changes in municipal services that disrupt citizens’ daily or weekly habits.

Few people willingly embrace change in their routines. In a world increasingly chaotic, people cling to the security of routine at home, at school and in the workplace. Most residents don’t attend council or commission meetings. Their contact with local government is limited to services they count on each day or each week – especially water, sewage disposal and garbage pickup.

When the North Side dwellers lost their alley pickups, it disrupted routines residents had relied on for years. For some elderly and disabled residents, alley pickups made garbage disposal much easier, especially in winter. The residents weren’t given much notice about the alley-to-curbside change, either. This stirred resentment, anger and activism.

“The neighborhood was aroused, deployed,” said Gina McKenzie, of the Corbin Park neighborhood. “It affected them at a basic level.”

Civic leaders and staffers should always give plenty of notice and allow plenty of time for public hearings on proposed service changes. And they should ask citizens how the particular public service works into their routines, how it affects them at a basic level. And then leaders, staffers and residents need to brainstorm how the routines will change and how much burden (or perceived burden) this will place on citizens.

•Changes in municipal services that plug into deeper community issues.

During the height of the alley garbage controversy, former Spokesman-Review columnist Frank Sennett theorized that the garbage issue wasn’t only about garbage. He believed it stirred up the decades-old division between South Side and North Side dwellers. Do South Side dwellers get preferential treatment because more of the city’s expensive homes are located there? Some residents have long held that belief. So when alley service was changed to curbside service for North Side residents only, it might have awakened ancient North-South resentments.

When an issue evokes strong emotions and lasts longer than it should, leaders should ask: What else is going on here? That one simple question can save time and money and preserve precious, and much needed, citizen goodwill.

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