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    A Times Editorial

    Making Tampa more responsive


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 30, 2002

    One important job that awaits Tampa's next mayor is improving the level of service by city departments. Some offices work well -- the water department and the city attorney -- while others, notably parks and solid waste, have a history of being unresponsive to the public. Tampa is not unique when it comes to weaknesses in a city bureaucracy. But poor service creates an image problem, and it feeds the perception that some neighborhoods are more important to the city than others.

    It is impossible to apply standard criteria for measuring one department against the next. The city attorney's office, for example, must respond to immediate legal challenges to the city, while other departments -- roads and sewers, for example -- are more at the mercy of outside pressures, such as budgets and the weather. Some departments also are natural magnets for public criticism -- code enforcement and parking first among them.

    But it still will be possible for Tampa's next mayor, to be elected in March, to get a picture of the weak points. Many of them are cropping up as issues in the mayoral campaign. Code enforcement is understaffed. The city's land and business development office has worked exclusively on special projects at the expense of broader community needs. Mayor Dick Greco also fostered an operating culture where employees felt immunized from public criticism. The end result, not surprisingly, is that neighborhood groups have moved to solve their own problems in recent years, as individual residents tire of hitting the wall.

    Mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn's plan to reorganize several city offices under a new deputy mayor is the right structural approach. The people responsible for redeveloping neighborhoods and dealing with residents' concerns about health and safety should have a direct pipeline to the mayor. This needs to exist on a formal and an ongoing basis. This same philosophy -- that government exists to serve the people -- can be applied to every other department, with the goal of identifying who's responsive and who's not.

    It's become common to use accountability as a throwaway term. But it's what residents look for when they can't get decent garbage service, can't get their calls returned or when they get jerked around. The city will never be able to satisfy every need; often the hardest job is lowering expectations. But residents deserve to know they're being listened to, that their concerns mean something, that their desires are not complaints but the making of the city's political agenda.

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