Chapter 6 Dirty Job? Hire a New Person to Do It

·  “Sometimes the best way to say ‘No’ is to say ‘Yes,’ and then just not do it.”

—William Thompson

Sewers can be dirty business, but then they add to the health and safety of communities. In 1972, the United States Congress appropriated funds for construction of sewers in rural communities of America. Eligibility depended on the density of the local population and whether the community already had sanitary sewers. The small north central community of Brooklyn was a likely candidate. However, residents in the community had invested money in septic tanks and their upkeep, so the political sell to have sewers would not be an easy one.

Fortune shined on the city fathers as Richard Nixon impounded funds for the project, claiming that the federal budget was too large and deficit spending was endangering the general economy. Nixon’s action stood for several years. However, a lawsuit finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices ruled that the president was without general authority to impound authorized funds for projects such as rural sewer construction. Funds were ordered to be released. A few more years passed before the state government was told that it would receive over a billion dollars for eligible local sewer projects. The citizens of Brooklyn were a bit more receptive to the idea this time, but opposition was still strong.

The state requested that eligible communities pass sewer construction ordinances and then apply to the state Environmental Protection Agency for the federal funds. The local governments would be given one half of the money needed to construct sewers. As the building of the sewers required tearing up streets, new street construction was also part of the project. The city would then have to issue bonds to cover the remaining cost of the project. The city of Brooklyn proposed that the costs of the bonds would be repaid through charges to residents who hooked up to the sewer lines. While residents could not be forced to hook up, they would be forever prohibited from installing new septic tanks.

The city council held hearings, and they took in an earful—mostly from residents who had just installed new tanks or who were convinced that tanks were every bit as good as those smelly sewers. If direct democracy was in effect, it is likely that the project would have lost a local vote. But local governments have representative democracy. The city council members were reasonable, and they listened to their engineering consultants and officials from the health department. Urbanized areas with sandy soils like Brooklyn had could not long subsist with only septic tanks. The end to this rural style of sanitation was coming near. The release of federal funds was a godsend, and the time to act was at hand. The state told the eligible local governments they had only 3 months to make their applications for funds. Under the leadership of Mayor Elliott Ferdon, the Brooklyn council voted unanimously to apply for the funds.

By the spring of 1978, the state had selected Brooklyn to receive $50 million as one half the cost of building a sewer system for 8,000 houses and business structures. The funded project included 55 miles of new pavement for almost all of the city’s streets.

For all his hard labor on the project, Mayor Ferdon had only won opposition from local citizens, and in the fall he was defeated for reelection by Dick Houghton. Houghton had been a nonvocal supporter of the sewer project, but all he said in the campaign was “We have to move on from here,” and, “We just have to make sure it is done in a way that is good for all the citizens.” Coming to office, Houghton did not have to make the difficult choice of having or not having sewers. But there were a lot of difficult hurdles to jump before the sewers became a reality. The city hired consultants to provide engineering plans and to conduct bidding for construction, and it hired financial consultants to negotiate the sale of $50 million in bonds to match the federal grant. The city council also had to devise a plan to assign costs for hook-ups for each building structure using the sewers. Was it to be by individual housing unit, by street frontage, or by evaluation of the worth of property on tax rolls? It was a technical matter to be worked out in an atmosphere of zero-sum games where each decision made one resident a winner and another a loser.

While interest rates had been steadily climbing through 1979, toward the end of the year they dipped to less than 7% for municipal bonds, and the city was able to sell the bonds for somewhat less than expected. As it readied to bid out eight different construction grants, for eight geographical sectors of the city, fear struck again. Inflation was well into double digits, and petroleum products such as asphalt that was to be used for new streets were at all-time high prices. Good luck struck again. Local unemployment was severe and construction companies had idle capital equipment and work crews that were either laid off or about to be laid off. Bidding was competitive, and the costs of actual bids were below those anticipated. Sewers for Brooklyn were to become a reality.

As these events were unfolding, the city telephones began to constantly ring with questions about the project. High on the list of questions was, When is my neighborhood going to have its streets ripped up? Will I be able to drive home? How will we get out of the house? When do we have to pay for hook-ups? If the city gives us a loan for hook-up fees, what interest rate will we be paying? What if we are too poor to make payments for hook-ups? And on and on and on.

One day during this growing turmoil—which was beginning to wear on the clerical staff—Mayor Houghton read in the League of Municipalities magazine that a city in Minnesota had installed a sewer hotline during the construction of its new sewer lines. Houghton phoned the manager of that city and they had a long discussion. Houghton talked with the council members and they agreed to give him gas money and 2 days off if he would drive the 400 miles to the Minnesota community and gather details about the system. He came back enthused. As the local Comprehensive Employment Training Assistance (a federal program also known as C.E.T.A.) office was in a large city close to Brooklyn, Houghton made a visit there as well. C.E.T.A. staff indicated that they could find a person to act as the key telephone answering person for the sewer hotline. The city council agreed to set up the system and use a C.E.T.A. employee whose salary would be fully paid by the federal government.

The system was quite simple. C.E.T.A. sent out a young woman, Olivia Forest, who was enthusiastic about getting a job. She was personable and said she enjoyed answering phones and talking on the phone. She was selected to do the job. Her training involved a series of interviews with the city engineering consultants. She learned each of their names; she learned how to contact each of them at any hour needed. She met with each of the construction leaders of the companies that won bids to do work. She then developed a system of identifying each city street and cataloguing days when work would be done on the street. Before the work started she would develop handouts that the city building department would take to the front doors of houses and buildings. The handout would indicate the number of the sewer hotline and Olivia’s name. Olivia also held weekly meetings with the engineers and teams from the construction companies. Olivia had a direct telephone number, but all calls coming into any city telephone regarding sewers were forwarded to her. For financial information such as billings, she was able to refer the calls to the treasurer’s office if they involved more than basic information.

The system was a jewel. Everyone else on the city staff was relieved to be able to do their regular jobs without interference. A jewel of a dirty job had been given to Olivia Forest. It was a job that lasted 8 to 5 like the other staff jobs. However, it was a job that permitted few breaks other than for lunch and a quick restroom jaunt. The job was a total overload. It would have been a severe job for anyone, and for Olivia it was more. She had not worked for many months; she was a single mother with obligations to get one kid back and forth to school and another to a babysitter. She did have extra government financial support for these duties, but the time pressures were horrendous. She went from the frying pan of the city office literally to the hot kitchen of home to make dinners for her children. Without complaining, she tried, and by all accounts she did a great job for the first month. Then came the recurring headaches and the occasional sick days. Then she was gone for a week. Then Mayor Houghton learned that Olivia had had a breakdown and was at the mental health ward of a large hospital in the next city.

The system was a flawed jewel. Houghton called back the city manager in Minnesota, and he said there was a bit of an overload on the person in charge of the phones. He had not told Houghton before, but now he informed Houghton that they rotated the job each 3 weeks. That way they had ready fill-ins in case of sick days and vacation days.

Houghton went back to the drawing board. He gathered all the clerical staff together and gave them a bit of basic training in the system. They agreed to pitch in as long as Houghton and the city clerk and treasurer personally took their turns on the phone. All agreed, and an 8-day rotation system—1 day at a time—was established. Olivia returned to the office relieved that she would be trained now to do other more mundane clerical tasks. After a month back she agreed to become part of a 9-day rotation on the sewer hotline.

Olivia was favored the next time the city had a vacancy for a regular position. She had been kept on beyond her C.E.T.A. timetable on a temporary basis. She became a permanent city employee.


· 1. Was what happened to Olivia inevitable?

· 2. Could Houghton have anticipated the problems Olivia would face?

· 3. Should staff members at the Minnesota city have been more forthcoming about the overload problem?

· 4. Would it have been more reasonable to have started the program with a regular staff member at Brooklyn city hall?

· 5. Is it ethical to dump the dirty job on the new person?

· 6. How might the job have been less trying for Olivia?

· 7. Was it appropriate for the city to give Olivia preference over all other applicants in hiring when a new vacancy arose?

· 8. Was permanently hiring Olivia a violation of Civil Service rules that state that jobs must be advertised and that a search for job candidates must be done?