The City’s False Pothole Pledge

The City’s False Pothole Pledge

Omar Santos, a utility worker with the city's Streets Division, shovels hot asphalt from the back of a truck to fill a pothole on Bankers Hill. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009 | The city of San Diego told its residents last year that 100 percent of potholes were being repaired within 72 hours of citizen notification.

That would have been a fantastic turnaround time, considering the division handled more than 83,000 requests to repair the city’s infrastructure in the 2008 fiscal year.

But the division’s assertion is not true.

In annual reports meant to update residents and City Council members about how tax dollars are being spent, city officials claim that 100 percent of potholes are repaired within 72 hours. They report that their goals, in fact, are to repair 90 percent of them within 48 hours.

The average citizen waits much longer than three days, and many wait more than two weeks before their complaints are even addressed, according to an analysis by voiceofsandiego.org.

The Street Division calculates its response time based on a number of factors that don’t end up reflecting the common interpretation of the word “repaired.” In some cases, the division considers a pothole to be repaired even though no work has been completed on the site. It also uses a set of data that makes the division appear faster than reality. The result is a performance measure that misleads residents and their City Council representatives.

The city recognizes the fact that citizens want to know how their complaints are being handled. To evaluate its performance of that task, city officials created a goal based on the average time it takes to resolve a citizen-initiated pothole complaint.

Division officials acknowledge that their calculation for the performance goal does not accurately reflect the total response to citizen notification or the word “repaired.”

The problem became apparent when residents reporting infrastructure needs received automatic notices saying their problems had been repaired. When the city clearly hadn’t made repairs in some instances, residents became angry.

The division now tells people who file requests through an online system that their issues are being “addressed.”

Dayna Hydrick calls herself a homemaker and advocate for University City, and she frequently submits service requests through the Street Division’s online system. Earlier this year, she noticed the shift in how the online system responded to her requests.

“I kind of stopped doing it recently because I felt like I wasn’t getting much of a response,” Hydrick said. “I thought they didn’t care. That’s the impression I got.”

Here’s part of the problem: People complain about potholes but the street might not require any pothole patching. The site might lack potholes altogether, bear different problems or require more extensive street repairs.

In any of those cases, the Street Division categorizes the citizen’s pothole problem as “repaired” in a database and adds the incident to its annual calculation of response time. If the complaint pointed the division to other problems on the street, crews will continue to work on them.

The division also calculates its response time by using the time between a city worker’s first assessment of the site and the project’s completion. The time between the city receiving notification of the problem and the first assessment is missing from the calculation, which makes the division’s calculated response time shorter than what people are actually waiting.

So how long does it actually take the division to respond to pothole requests? Well, there are at least three ways of measuring the division’s response time.

Try to think about the division’s response as three points on a timeline. First, a citizen notifies the division of a pothole problem. Second, the division conducts an initial assessment of the request. And third, the division completes the request. “Completion” could mean repairs, sending the request to another department or doing nothing.

The 72-hour performance measurement examines the second half of the timeline — the time between the division’s initial response to a request and the date of completion. The division reported 100 percent of potholes were completed in 72 hours.

At VOSD’s request, the Street Division calculated the entire timeline — the time between citizen notification and date of completion. Deputy Director Hasan Yousef said it took crews an average of 6.7 days to repair potholes in the 2008 fiscal year.

Two months ago, VOSD obtained a database of pothole requests handled by the Street Division to assess the first half of the timeline — the time between citizen notification and the division’s first assessment.

A VOSD analysis of the data shows it took an average of 16 days for division crews to first assess a pothole complaint after receiving a complaint.

The data used by VOSD to make its calculation is accurate, but different than the data used by the Street Division to make its two calculations. The VOSD data includes all requests for pothole repairs submitted to the Street Division since Jan. 1, 2008. The city uses fiscal year 2008, and does not include requests for pothole repairs that may have been referred to other city departments for maintenance.

In other words, the VOSD calculation represents how long every person actually waited for the city to make an initial assessment of their requests. The division’s estimates are likely faster than 16 days because it uses a smaller amount of data with a greater proportion of quicker responses.

Yousef defended the division’s calculations of pothole response and said division staff look at every request to make sure it is appropriately added to the annual totals.

“When we calculate, we look at specific problems. If something stands out as odd — take 100 days for example — we pull up the actual request and look into the details,” Yousef said. “We look at the work logs that the crews in the field fill out.”

When contacted with some information about the different response times produced by different calculations of the Street Division’s data, several City Council members said they would look into the issue. Councilman Todd Gloria said most of the citizen requests submitted through his office were addressed within the 72-hour goal. Councilwoman Sherri Lightner expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m surprised by these statistics and would be interested in seeing where this data comes from,” Lightner said in a statement. “Whenever my office or I report a pothole for a constituent, it’s fixed. I always encourage residents of my district to contact me if they feel like their pothole repair requests are not being completed in a timely manner.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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