City Hall taking complaints via Internet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

People annoyed with their neighbors' barking dogs, buildings turned into eyesores because of graffiti or axle-busting potholes in Baltimore have yet another way to get City Hall's attention.

A gateway to the city's 311 system for reporting complaints, promoted by Mayor Martin O'Malley as "your call to City Hall," has been placed on the Internet.

By logging on to the city's Web site at www.baltimorecity.gov and clicking onto 311 Services, a computer user will reach a request form that leads to a series of questions that asks for the type, address and details of the problem as well as the name and e-mail address of the person making the complaint.

A secure connection safeguards the complainer's personal information from other Internet users.

"We tried to design this for the computer beginner," said Elliot H. Schlanger, chief information officer for the Mayor's Office of Information Technology. The online 311 service has been operating since early May.

Those requesting city services can remain anonymous, but people who supply an e-mail address will receive a confirmation that the complaint has been received, as well as a link that can be accessed to review the status of the request. A service request number that can also be used to check on the request is given at the time it is submitted, along with an estimated time in which the issue will be resolved.

"Some people prefer to use the Web as their primary tool to communicate with the government," said Schlanger. "The purpose of [the Web request option] is just ... to open up another avenue to [the] ... administration."

The online option is also convenient for people who have Internet access at work and those for whom a call to Baltimore would be long distance.

The operating cost of the Web portal is about $3,500 a month after a one-time start-up expense of $5,700.

Online submissions account for 2 percent of the requests received by the 311 system and come from inside and outside the city. Word of mouth has steadily increased usage since the alternative was introduced.

"We'd be tickled pink if it went up to 5 percent," said Schlanger. "But we're out with the front of the pack."

Chicago, Dallas and Houston also have created online submission options for city services, but after being online for just more than a year, Chicago's system takes less than 1 percent of its total monthly requests via the Web, according to that city's director of 311 services, Ted O'Keefe.

Barbara L. Ruland of Ednor Gardens used the online option to request the removal of a pile of dirt, rocks and concrete on the sidewalk and street near her home. "It was easy to use, ... and the response was timely," she said in an e-mail.

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