What's Wrong With 311 in Los Angeles

Every day I pick up litter in my Hollywood neighborhood while walking my dog. And every day there are at least 2 or 3 new items on my route that get dragged out and dropped on the sidewalk - old chairs, table, couches, mattresses etc. If no scavengers pick up these items, and they remain there for more than a week, I usually call 311 myself.

311 used to be a 24-hour system, but budget cuts reduced it to a service during business hours only. That means a longer wait time to get to an operator. When I call I am walking my dog and picking up trash at the same time. Sometimes I don't want to hold the phone while eating up minutes on my cell plan, but usually I get through. Sometimes the operator takes the info, and sometimes she switches you to a different department. This is seems very inefficient to me. Citizens who take the time to keep their neighborhoods clean should not have to jump through hoops. The operator should just send the information where it belongs.

I find it interesting that I have never once heard from an operator, "that's already been called in, Sir." For all I know, she takes the same information repeatedly from several callers, eating up valuable time as people calling in other items give up from being on hold.

Two days ago, I called in about a growing pile of furniture accumulating in front of a neighbor's building. Unfortunately, my neighborhood is one of the worst in the city for this kind of dumping--for example, we have Christmas trees sitting in front of building for a month, now. To my relief, I saw the items being picked up this morning, and ever helpful, I brought over part of a bed frame that had been laying on a tree across the street for a week. The man loading the truck gave me the signal that he couldn't load it, "it wasn't on the list."

The first place I went in my head, of course, was imagining he was suffering from a union-rules small-mindedness that did the minimum necessary and refused to take initiative. "Hey," I said, "I called this in myself. All I said was a pile of furniture. There's no reason you can't take this too." I was assertive but not harsh, but it was enough for him to drag back to the curb something he had been putting in the truck. I doubled back.

"What's going on, are you telling me you not taking anything now?"

"I'm trying to do my job, I don't appreciate being yelled at!"

I decided I needed to be a reasonable guy and perhaps he could teach me something if I got off my high horse.

"I apologize," I said. "I know you've got a hard job. Please explain to me why you can't take this extra stuff."

"We get a computer sheet, listing stuff to pick up, at specific addresses. But when we get here, everybody starts bringing stuff out. If we take it, we end up not being able to do every address on our list, because there's not enough time or room in the truck. Then I get in trouble for not doing my job. I've got a family. I can't lose this job."

"That's a screwed up system," I said. "Cause you're right here, but I'm going to have to call for you to come back in a week to pick this other stuff up."

"I agree with you, man, but that's the way it is."

"You do what you have to do, Sir. I apologize again for giving you a hard time. I'll call this other stuff in and write to my Councilman about the system."

Of course, I've tried that, to no avail. So perhaps, the power of the press.

This is the system you need to put in place, Mr. Sanitation Commissioner and Mr. Mayor. Divide up all area presently covered by the collection trucks into how ever many segments can be covered in one day. Ideally that would mean diving LA into 5 segments, each scanned once a week, but I suspect 10 would be more realistic. That would mean that every street in that segment would be covered on that day, twice a month. There would be no need to call 311 for pickup. You would know every other Thursday, for example, a truck would pick up large items from your block.

The segments need not be equally sized--some fine-tuning would be necessary to accommodate areas of the city where people drag out household items more frequently--like my neighborhood. But the present system results in some refuse rotting for weeks, often creating mini-dumps, especially in front of long walls or vacant lots, where the nearest building manager or apartment dweller has to be inordinately civic-minded to call 311. Unfortunately, it's not a common mindset in many areas of the city. I would daresay a small minority of us are the ones who call over and over again.

The blight caused by all the litter in LA (where are the trash bins on major thoroughfares like Western Avenue?) and profuse dumping eats at the quality of life and has a deleterious effect on the kind of tourism that LA desperately needs. Altering the system is an example of the kind of smart government that saves money and constitutes responsive civic management.

Study 311 and change it.