IN this instalment of Ampersand, I shall detail the extra duties of handling complaints as a councillor.
I will explain why the public continues to approach councillors such as myself despite the fact that the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) has a complaints department. The MBPJ also has a 24-hour hotline for complaints.
Apart from that, the mayor has implemented a “no wrong door policy”, where an officer must handle any complaint that reaches him or her.
Still, ratepayers, regardless of their background, will turn to councillors for help for one reason or another instead of going through the official channels.
The views expressed here are personal and may not reflect the experience of other councillors.
Many complainants come to me for help with their neighbours. I have offered to accompany these complainants to the local council’s open day — held on the first and third Fridays of the month — where all departments are required to handle public complaints. But many complainants insist that I help them get things done without filing an official report.
When asked why they don’t want to file a report, they explain their fear of having their identity exposed to the person they are complaining about. While I do help them regardless, it shows the amount of confidence the public has in the civil service’s professionalism.
While some residents complain to me directly out of fear, others complain out of frustration with the quality of service provided.
For example, residents have voiced their displeasure that a business licence application takes several months to be approved. Their inquiries about the delay also often go unanswered.
I have had the pleasure of spending several mornings accompanying these ratepayers to the different departments in charge of approving the licence. We enquire if the ratepayer had failed to submit the proper documents to get the licence approved. My presence, it seems, miraculously results in an approval being granted. Or it results in an instant response, with helpful tips on how to speed the process along.
(Pic by nion / sxc.hu) There are also complaints outside of office hours that are related to enforcement work; for example, noisy patrons at 24-hour restaurants that screen football matches, or construction work that is being done until 2am.
Not many residents know that the MBPJ has a 24-hour hotline for such complaints. Please take down this number, folks: 03-7954 2020.
Still, not all calls get through. This invariably forces the complainant to call the local councillor. Indeed, I have had the pleasure of going to a construction site at 2am.
There are other matters where the problem requires a large sum of money to fix, like old damaged drains, for which the standard response would be “no budget”. This would, of course, infuriate the complainant, who would no doubt question how the MBPJ is spending tax money.
In truth, the local council’s financial system is a little cumbersome. All projects are budgeted at the beginning of the year. For work costing more than RM20,000, a project paper must be presented at the finance committee meeting for endorsement. This is followed by an open tender exercise. Note to contractors, these tenders are periodically offered on the MBPJ website.
Emergency projects that haven’t been budgeted for require authorisation from councillors so that the council’s reserve funds can be used. This again requires officers to prepare the paperwork for the project.
This process, starting from the date a councillor makes a request to the selection of the contractor via open tender, takes around three months. That is a long wait for those who are facing a problem in their neighbourhood.
So, if the system is so inefficient, why not take action against the responsible officers? The MBPJ has a disciplinary board. But we don’t simply punish or sack a person without proof of wrongdoing.
Additionally, the Malaysian public is often lackadaisical in the way they file complaints. For example, they don’t take a file number, don’t ask for the officer’s name, and don’t remember the date and time when they filed the complaint. This makes it an exercise in futility on my part to track down and punish errant officers.
Also, residents sometimes exhibit an abusive and demanding behaviour that makes it difficult for the officer to even want to extend a helping hand. So not all blame can be cast on council officers. Indeed, I have been witness to male ratepayers who call female council officers obscene names, despite the officer explaining patiently that what was being asked was not allowed under the law.
As an aside, I am heading the ICT sub-committee that is tasked with overhauling the council’s computer systems. Specifically, we are looking at implementing a system that will allow the public to track their complaint online right down to the department or officer. However, this will take at least three years to implement in stages, and is more of a long-term solution.
Officially and technically, policymaking is the only thing I have to worry about as a local councillor. That is why being councillor is labelled a part-time job.
However, the reality of the government system we inherited is such that problems will continue to crop up even as local councillors look at policies that would help fix the problem. And if local councillors do not step in and provide ad hoc fixes, the government of the day will simply be faced with an unsympathetic public when it is time to head to the polls.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak knows that change doesn’t end at the ballot box but starts there.
Read previous Ampersand columns
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