When it comes to handling complaints, Rebecca Bowman might just have jumped out of the fire and into the frying pan when she left a state job in consumer protection to head Howard County's Office of Consumer Affairs.
As director of the mediation unit of the state attorney general's office of consumer protection, Bowman was charged with handling 100,000 phone calls and 12,000 written complaints a year. It took a staff of nine and 60 volunteers to manage the workload.
In her new position, which she took over in March, about 200 written complaints are logged annually by a staff of two investigators, and the number of phone calls hasn't even been tracked, she said.
"It's a question of visibility, and ours is not what it should be," said the Columbia resident, who moved to Hickory Ridge six months ago. "Consumers always have the choice where to file a complaint, but I would love this office to be the first place they call."
County Executive Ken Ulman said Bowman's desire to make the department "relevant to people's lives" was one of the reasons she was hired to replace Steve Hannan, who retired in November. Howard and Montgomery counties are the only two local jurisdictions in the state that have consumer rights offices, Ulman said, adding, "A lot of people may not be aware that our office even exists."
Ulman said he was also drawn to her penchant for new ideas regarding such hot topics as foreclosure and the environment. Bowman, in turn, said that's what she likes about the county executive.
"Ken is doing exciting and progressive things in the county," she said, such as initiating the Healthy Howard program to provide health coverage to uninsured county residents. "He is also very smart about creating an environment where people are comfortable in being innovative."
Bowman, 52, said she has told Ulman that she wants to partner with most, if not all, county departments. "All services in the county have a consumer component, so the more we can work together the better," she said.
While the volume of complaints she deals with may have decreased, Bowman said her duties have increased.
"It's nice to have more responsibility in a smaller pond," she said. "I'll be able to actually direct and influence enforcement action while still working with the legislature."
She said she plans to place an immediate emphasis on getting a handle on the foreclosure laws passed during the recent General Assembly session.
"Howard County is a very interesting place to be, as there are many, many affluent people, but there's also a segment of not-so-affluent, foreign-born residents," she said. "We don't have the foreclosure rate of Prince George's County, but it is still a devastating problem even if only a few people are experiencing it."
She has taken over a case that was initiated by her predecessor against the owners of a foreclosure rescue agency that persuaded two elderly sisters to sell their home to them and then rent it back. Once the deal was finalized, the agency promptly attempted to evict the sisters, she said.
"There is a broad range of issues in this county - as broad as when I worked at the state level in Baltimore," she said, adding that there will be times when she will coordinate her office's efforts with the state's.
Overlap of cases between county and state offices isn't uncommon, said Steve Sakamoto-Wengel, deputy chief in the state attorney general's office of consumer protection. He said he worked closely with Hannan and expects to have a similar relationship with Bowman, especially because they worked together for 21 years.
"Becky is a very good listener and very empathetic," he said, "and she is also adept at explaining to consumers their rights under the law."
There have been times when her successes in stopping an unlawful practice have resulted in the perpetrator's setting up shop in another state, Bowman said.
"I worked on a case involving a guy who rented [recreation vehicles] that were in terrible shape and people using them were left stranded on their vacations," she said. After her intervention, the man moved out of state. "He wasn't picking on Maryland anymore, but then Pennsylvania had to jump on him. Hopefully, what we accomplished made it easier for them to get a handle on him."
Bowman plans to hold a one-day retreat in early May so staff members can brainstorm and draft a strategic plan for coming years.
"We need to identify what our biggest challenges are, what areas we can most help with and what's on the horizon that we want to get a hold of," she said.
For starters, she said she plans to suggest establishing a landlord-tenant commission. She also wants to "get out in front" of what she foresees as scams relating to environmental products, since "it's so big right now to be green."
Her boyfriend, Mark Charles, is the environmental manager for Rockville, and they have discussed the need for consumers to be informed about the various products claiming to be environmentally friendly, she said.
"I plan to work closely with the Office of Environmental Sustainability, which was just formed in March," Bowman said. "It's important for citizens to examine product claims with a wary eye, as environmental products may cost more [than their counterparts] yet not perform as expected."
Basically, Bowman said, she wants to help county residents help themselves.
"Often, consumer affairs is pulled into checking out scams after a citizen has lost money or the scam artist either can't be found or doesn't have any money to make restitution," she said. "I want to stop the deception, as opposed to trying to clean up the mess after. It's very difficult for everyone when someone loses a lot of money."
The hardest part of her job is "when citizens have unrealistic expectations about what government can or should do," she said. While her office promises to work hard to help, she said, "We can't solve everyone's problems 100 percent of the time."
At the very least, she said what she hopes to accomplish is "getting people to pause, step back and ask, 'Is this for real?' We just want that light bulb to come on."
To contact the Office of Consumer Affairs, call 410 313-6420.
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