News: An All-Purpose Person

You're a taxpayer. You have rights. Getting help from the government shouldn't be very hard -- after all, we're talking about City Hall, not the federal behemoth. You need help with trash collectio

You're a taxpayer. You have rights. Getting help from the government shouldn't be very hard — after all, we're talking about City Hall, not the federal behemoth.

You need help with trash collection? A question about building codes? You call the city.

Dialing a number isn't intimidating, until you see the city's listings in the phone directory — more than 400 in all. If choice sometimes makes more informed decisions possible, it often merely confuses.

If you call the city to report large ugly insects are infesting your apartment, do you call the Health Department's Vector Control number at 513-352-2922? The phone book specifies that listing for rats, insects and pigeons.

Or should you call the Health Department's Nuisance Complaint number at 513-564-1750? The phone book specifies that listing for complaint about heat, roaches and plumbing.

Accessing the right office for city services is only the first hurdle. Each department, division, section and office has its own rules and specialized areas of responsibility.

Frustration with bureaucracy isn't a solely modern phenomenon. "Ombudsman" is a word of Swedish derivation for a person assigned to investigate complaints against the government. In the early 18th century, the King of Sweden appointed a person to help citizens get satisfaction from government.

In the United States, universities and private companies often have an ombudsman to help students or customers. Many cities also have the position, using it as a way to investigate complaints, expedite service to citizens and even recommend policy changes for the city.

Two cities often cited as models for Cincinnati — Portland, Ore. (if we try extra hard) and Detroit (if we're not extra careful) — have an ombudsman.

The Detroit Ombudsman's Web page starts ominously, but honestly, saying its staff strives to protect the confidentiality of citizens' complaints, but warning it can't be guaranteed. The tone quickly becomes consumer-friendly in the office's mission statement, which offers the prospect of "kindly advice when necessary."

An independent agency of Detroit municipal government, the ombudsman evaluates both sides of citizen-government conflicts. The office reports to city council on issues of significance to the proper functioning of city government, provides investigative and informational services, listens to questions and concerns of callers and provides information and referrals.

Two general types of ombudsman are found in local governments. An executive ombudsman, working for a mayor or city manager, has the advantage of working within the bureaucratic structure, sometimes informally resolving citizens' complaints. A legislative ombudsman, appointed by a city council and established in statute, has the benefit of independence from the executive and administrative offices it interacts with.

Michael P. Mills has been both, serving as ombudsman for Anchorage, Ala., and later for Portland.

In a paper presented at the International Conference on the Ombudsman Concept in Taipei, Taiwan, Mills said his office was able to help lots of Portlanders. When first established in 1993, he said, the ombudsman's office's two full-time employees and seven volunteers fielded an average of 6,000 cases a year.

The Portland Ombudsman doesn't aim to solve all citizens' complaints about city government. Instead the office tries to help citizens do it themselves.

"What the small staff size has meant in terms of capabilities is that our service becomes in large part a service of empowering citizens to resolve their own complaints and grievances by providing them the knowledge whereby they can initiate the review without direct intervention by the Ombudsman," Mills wrote. "Those that have already made such an attempt, or after following our suggestions have failed to receive adequate results, then have their complaints reviewed by the Ombudsman."

But Mills' career perhaps proves the need for an ombudsman in all levels of government. Writing in 1994, he said an executive ombudsman could be vulnerable if the office displeased the mayor.

"Without a provision in the city charter or our laws, there is little assurance that the individual or the office will exist after a change in leadership," he wrote.

Today the Portland ombudsman office has been reorganized to take it out of the mayor's office. The ombudsman is now part of the office of the city auditor, who is an elected officeholder independent from the mayor.

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