September 25, 2000
At Woodinville City Hall,
'real' people help people
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
WOODINVILLEPunch in the phone number of any business, college, or government agency and chances are a recording, usually a nasal-sounding female, will answer. "If you want di-reck-shuns, press 1. If you want to reg-i-sturrrr, press 2...."
Just as typewriters have been replaced by computers, so have real people been replaced with automated telephone answering systems. But there's at least one or two places left on the planet where real persons still answer the phones.
At Woodinville City Hall, the real persons are Jenny Kuhn, Administrative Assistant, and Dawn Pickard, Senior Administrative Assistant.
Seated at their desks, Kuhn and Pickard personally respond to every call placed to the main number at City Hall. They handle well over a hundred calls per day. What's even more remarkable, both women are always friendly no matter how busy they are. They wouldn't even consider answering the phone with a curt, "Yeah? Whada'ya want?" They are welcome reminders of a time when people helped people, instead of technology helping to sometimes frustrate people.
In between phone calls and people walking in to ask questions, Kuhn and Pickard have numerous other duties they attend to. Nevertheless, they want to provide a government that's approachable to its citizens. "It's strictly a hands-on commitment to our community," Pickard said.
City Clerk Sandra Cain-Steffler explained that a previous city manager had expressed his desire for City Hall to have an open door policy and that policy is maintained to this day. Both Pickard and Cain-Steffler said that Woodinville is one of the few cities left that still answers the phones with real people rather than a recording.
Kuhn has been with the city just over a year and Pickard is a three-year veteran. Sandra Cain-Steffler, who has been city clerk for three years and was recently accepted to the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, pitches in to help Kuhn and Pickard when needed.
Describing the enormity of calls during special events, Cain-Steffler said, "Before the 4th of July event and the Light Festival at Christmas, Dawn and Jenny will be on the phone constantly."
Kuhn said that the majority of people who call in are friendly.
"I rarely get an angry person," she added.
Pickard explained that some days are filled with a lighthearted chuckle or two at some of the funny calls. She recalled a woman calling her from her bathroom where she was holed up while a bumblebee was on the loose in her house threatening to sting the lady if she dared leave her refuge.
The lady wanted Pickard to come to her house and shoo the dangerous insect from the premises. Sandra Cain-Steffler remembered taking an odd call when she first came to work for the City.
"I received a call from a lady who wanted me to come out to her house and get her neighbor's chickens off her roof," she said, smiling at the thought of the woman's confidence in her roof climbing abilities.
Pickard said that the most unusual call was from a citizen who called to ask what wildflower mix was used on the I-405 corridor. The thought of that call brought a smile to the three women, amused at people who assume they drive around identifying roadside plants in preparation of gardening questions.
On a serious note, Kuhn mentioned that she had just received a call from a man looking for shelter. And as much as Kuhn and Pickard would like to help everyone, they have limits to their power and knowledge at City Hall. However, they are usually able to direct the person to another agency that can assist with their inquiry.
Still, they have plenty of answers to city related information. Next to their phone is a "cheat sheet" full of telephone numbers callers regularly ask for, such as the number to the local utility or the Woodinville Weekly. Pertinent city statistics, including the population of Woodinville and the longitude and latitude of the city are posted on a blackboard beside Kuhn's work station. But there are many other reasons people call: some to report a street light out, others to ask about police matters, street closures, directions‹or to inquire about historical information, how to apply for a local business license or how to contact a state representative. And some people simply call and say, "I'm moving here.What do I need to do?"
City Hall isn't totally without automation and does rely on a voice mail system for the main City Hall number for employees who are away from their desk and for after hours. According to Cain-Steffler, City Hall has four voice mail trees with twenty phone lines. When City Hall moves to its new building next spring, Cain-Steffler said that the voice mail system will go with them. ìWeíre still discussing all the mechanics of the phone system.î She said the physical move will be done by the phone company. However, the job of rebuilding the entire phone system at City Hall may go to her. Cain-Steffler has spent week-ends studying two thick manuals on the phone system and voice mail.
When in their new building, Kuhn and Pickard will be stationed on the second floor. They will continue to provide their friendly ëweíre-here-to-serve-youí manner and they wouldnít have it any other way. But the secret to keeping their upbeat style was out when Pickard quipped, ìCoffee helps.î