Thursday, May 14, 2015

ETHICS IN ACTION


I wrote about government bureaucracy yesterday. I ended my post with a resolution to proactively clear up a bureaucratic issue I had concerning my house here in Boston. My 131-year-old house had never been recorded properly on city rolls. Hard to believe, but sadly true.
 
Navigating the arcane paper trail of this issue is frustrating for a minimalist obsessive compulsive like myself. The city Web site was more confusing than educating. My three phone contacts had not clarified. All I knew from one bureaucrat was that I had to go to the city hall annex nearby and do something on a computer there.

When I arrived at the office where this bureaucrat said she worked, I found she was absent. In her stead was a broody young woman reading at a desk. She barely turned when I stood at the half-door to her office and explained my presence. She pointed over her shoulder at a wall and told me that the computers which would fix my problem were on the other side of it. I stood there expecting her to get off her chair. She didn't. "Do you need help?" she asked, with a hint of derisive surprise in her flat voice. "I suppose so," I replied, "since I have no bloody idea what the hell this whole problem is about." She followed me to the wall-length counter of computers, all with dark monitor screens.
 
"The computers are down!" A woman behind a counter on the other side of the large space shouted. She then added some technical jargon about what the I.T. people were doing behind the dark screens. Without thinking, I yelled, "Jesus Christ!" into the open area where about twenty people, mostly contractors, were milling about with blunted facial expressions and forms in hand. There was a freeze-frame moment. Silence. People stared at me. A large security guard at a tiny desk looked intentionally down at his open magazine.  I continued, "I  pay $870 a quarter in property taxes every quarter and can't even get a permit to fix my roof because my house doesn't exist on record."
 
The silence persisted. I tried not to let the "he's crazy" looks get to me. Now people were going back to shuffling papers. The woman who announced the computer crash said, "Come with me, sir. I'll take care of this." I was somewhat mistrusting. The thought flashed through my mind that I might be hustled off stage to a locked room until the men in white coats arrived. Instead I was ushered into her private office and offered a seat.
 
My savior turned out to be an assistant city commissioner. She spent about thirty minutes on my problem. In the end, I paid two fees and had a permit for my roof in hand. My house is still disappeared, but I have been assured she would get my house materialized on record as soon as the computers are fixed. This remains to be seen.
 
I guess this experience has two educational aspects for me. First, it was a reminder that verbal protest against bureaucracy is sometimes necessary to kick start it into action. But, more importantly, I was reminded that there are some compassionate and ethical people in bureaucratic positions. The assistant commissioner who took the time and personal care to help me was obviously a person committed to acting on her own ethics, despite her burdensome work environment. I have written a commendation email to the commissioner, her boss. I felt this was the only ethical and compassionate thing to do.

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