I had what might be called a 311 moment on Veterans Day.

While walking to the ceremonies at Fountain Square, I saw that the traffic signals at Church Street and Ridge Avenue were flashing red instead of operating properly.

The stop signs attached to the signal poles were still folded closed — which seemed to suggest city workers might not yet be aware of the problem.

Drivers approaching the intersection were behaving amazingly well under the circumstances, and it didn’t look like there was imminent danger of an accident.

Calling 911 didn’t seem like the right move. And, you know, I don’t happen to have the non-emergency number for the police department programmed into my cell phone.

So who are you supposed to call about a problem like that? And is Veterans Day a holiday when city offices would be closed?

Now, after covering city government for a while, I know traffic signals are handle the Public Works Department.

And I could have opened the web browser on my phone and gone to the Public Works Department page on the website … where I could have found that there is no phone number listed for how to contact anybody about anything there. 

Oh, no, you need to go to the Contact page on the city website to find phone numbers for departments. 

Well, by that time, if I hadn’t tripped and injured myself staring at the cell phone screen while walking, I would have already been at Fountain Square and been busy with other things.

How much easier just to know that 311 would let you report any non-emergency issue with city services.

Sounds like a winner to me. So, here’s hoping aldermen don’t strip funding for the project from the city budget.

Trim the planned 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. hours a bit, perhaps. But give the new program a try. 

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. We have no money to try out 311

    With all of the budget cuts that have happened and all of the proposed cuts, it is just not the right time to "try" to implement 311.  In your editiorial, you bring up an important point.  Phone numbers – and email addresses too – should be added to the City’s website for all City staff.  Additionally, the staff could be better trained.  Getting the wrong people, or not having the phone answered at all has been happening for years, and the recent lay-off’s have not helped.

    As you point out, we should improve our current web site to indicate the names, titles, phone numbers and email addresses of absolutely everyone that works for the City of Evanston. This is basic and important for every day navagation on the City’s site.  This information should be added regardless of the 311 decision.  I understand that there would be tracking issues with phone calls, but again, that is a training problem and the their are more problems without having this information.  With the web, we have a better communication tool than we have ever had.  Let’s utilize it to the fullest extent by adding contact information.   One suggestion would be to have a "311 tab" on the home page of the web that gets monitored with existing staff.  It could have 4 (non-emergency) areas: Police, Fire, Public Works (water) and Public Works (traffic).

    Every day, more and more people have smart phones or have access to the web at work or at home. The problem you had with your example could have been handled quickly if the phone numbers were available on the web.  At this time, adding staff (and lots of staff) for 311 is a luxury that we simply cannot afford.

  2. Flashing red lights

    Re: your comments about the folding stop signs not being unfolded. My understanding of the folding stop signs (a great idea, by the way) is that they are to be unfolded when the traffic signals are INOPERATIVE. Flashing red lights function the same as standard stop signs and should be treated accordingly, trafficwise.

    1. Flashing

      Hi John,

      Sure the flashing lights are supposed to be treated the same way as a stop sign — but when possibly inattentive drivers are confronted with an unexpected condition — it would seem logical to give them the extra reminder of the unfolded stop sign.

      And unless they are unfolded, how is the average passerby supposed to know whether anybody on the city staff is aware there’s a problem at the intersection?

      — Bill

  3. Not Everyone in the City has a Computer

    Please let’s all remember that not everyone in our fair city has access to the Web.  Having a single number would be a great asset to a substantial portion of our community who cannot look it up online.

    311 will also create some checks and balances to confirm our City staff are performing to the best of their ability.

    1. What urgent problem does the 311 center solve?

      It is understood that not everyone has access to a computer.  We already have a single number to call.  It is 847-328-2100 (the main City Hall number) and from there, you should be able to find what/whom is needed depending on your issue.  It is not clear what sudden and large problem the City has that would necessitate this expense during these difficult times.  Also, it would be helpful to know what the expense actually is.  The budget indicates that a total amount of $683,363 is budgeted for the 311 Center, but some existing positions are indicated to be eliminated or incorporated into this new function, so the actual cost remains a mystery to people trying to get this information out of the published 2011 budget.  One has to assume that it will cost something and the question to the alderpersons is:  What urgent problem is this solving?  And, if it is not solving anything urgent, why would we spend one dime hiring more people when we are proposing to layoff others because of budget shortages – in the very same budget.  It just doesn’t make any sense.
      As far as the comment that the 311 center will create some "checks and balances".  I don’t get the checks and balances part.  Managers should be managing any problems that arise.  It seems as though that isn’t happening.  It is unclear how spending more money on adding more people that will need more managing would provide any more "checks and balances".
  4. All hours

    It is a good idea – the programs in Chicago and New York have been a success.  However, I feel it would be better if it were available all the time.  People have problems no matter what time of day it is.  Perhaps after 11 PM a 911 worker could respond to 311 calls as well.  If a 911 call comes in, the 311 caller could be automatically put on hold.  A recorded message could warn 311 callers that this may happen. 

  5. Lazy aldermen

    311 is not for the benefit of the citizens of Evanston.  It is for the benefit of the aldermen.  They can avoid even more work than they do now.  Every Council session the aldermen make numerous requests for supplemental information from the staff.  Then the information is never read.   When it becomes obvious that they never read the reports, they claim the information doesn’t make sense. 

    The message is clear.  Don’t call us. We don’t want to have to deal with the problems of the City.

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