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Dead crows: thoughts on local government information access, part I

It’s been a pretty typical week for me in Tacoma, Washington (my home when I’m not at work in Seattle).  But as I reflect back on the past seven days, I can see how local government information popped into my world in at least two conspicuous ways (and I’m sure many other more subtle ways).  I’ll share one story now.

On Monday afternoon, upon returning home from walking my dog, I noticed an unfortunate sight:  a dead crow lying near our driveway, at the base of a telephone pole.  I had just disposed of a dead sparrow I’d found in the same vicinity the day before, so this concerned me.  I remembered that dead crows could be a sign of … some health hazard, I couldn’t remember which.  Without thinking, I consulted the real, tangible phone book’s blue pages (a hidden pasttime of many of us govdocs types), figuring I’d call the county health department.  I flipped past the federal government pages, the state pages, and found the county health department and its numerous entries.  Aha!  West Nile Virus hotline.  I called the number, and, because it was after hours, got a voicemail message.  Gratifyingly, the voice said something along the lines of "If you’re calling to report a dead crow, please provide your name, contact info and a detailed location for the crow.  We’ll call you back during business hours.  Check out our web page as well."

The next day at work, I received a courteous, professional call from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department.  The Environmental Health Specialist told me she was going to stop by my residence and remove the bird for testing.  She also conjectured that the crow was probably a juvenile who had been electrocuted by the power lines, a common occurence, but she would remove it all the same.  When I got home, I found her business card and several Washington State government brochures (yes!  it was a multi-jurisdictional day!) about mosquito repellent, West Nile Virus, and Dead Bird Reporting.  Jackpot — tangible gov docs, delivered to my doorstep!  Overall, I was quite pleased with how this terribly old fashioned combination of the phone book and telephone worked so quickly and efficiently.  Reviewing the web pages was a fun exercise after the fact, but I liked talking directly to the specialist.  Out here, Dex is one of the prominent phone books.  Its online version doesn’t seem to include government, at least not in an obvious way, leaving users with the impression that there are two types of phone numbers in the world: residential and business.  The blue pages rock.

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