When government doesn't respond, volunteers make calls to city hall

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When Knoxville activist and Democratic Committeeman Thomas Coppola needed help getting a lot cleaned up, he spent months pleading with the city's Bureau of Building Inspection and other officials.

Then he called Donna Wielock and Arlene Trost. Within a week, the lot had been tidied.

"I hear they don't even get paid up there," Mr. Coppola said. "They're volunteers."

It may be difficult to fight city hall, as the saying goes, but Ms. Wielock and Ms. Trost can help even the odds. From noon to 3 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, they staff City Councilman Bruce Kraus' satellite office in Arlington.

In the Pittsburgh tradition of neighbor helping neighbor, the two indeed work for free, fielding phone and walk-in complaints on all manner of constituent problems. Sometimes, the most they can do is let somebody vent or cry. But when they think they can cut through red tape to solve a problem, they give it their all.

"We never make promises," Ms. Wielock said.

The secret to their success is, well, a secret.

Longtime residents and community activists, Ms. Wielock and Ms. Trost acknowledged knowing who to call to get something done -- but declined to give any specifics. The two have been known to break bureaucratic logjams with sweet talk, heart-rending tales and appeals to civic pride.

"By the time you get off the phone with them, you don't even know what you've agreed to," said Matt Hogue, Mr. Kraus' chief of staff.

Each of the city's nine council members has a small office and staff in the City-County Building, Downtown. The city budget makes no provision for satellite offices, so a council member generally meets constituents at coffee shops, senior centers or similar venues to spare them a trip to Grant Street.

In April, at the suggestion of Ms. Wielock and Ms. Trost, Mr. Kraus established a satellite office -- a room in the Allegheny County Adult Probation's Day Reporting Center at 2320 Arlington Ave.

The county provided the room rent-free. Ms. Kraus came up with a computer and phone, then turned Ms. Wielock and Ms. Trost loose. The results, he said, have exceeded his expectations.

Mr. Coppola said he spent months trying to help a neighbor who wanted a contractor to clean up the broken concrete and other debris left behind after a city-ordered house demolition.

While city officials told him, "It's done. It's over. It's acceptable," Mr. Coppola disagreed. "You could not run a lawn mower over the property," he said.

After encountering Ms. Wielock and Ms. Trost at a community meeting, he said, he decided to ask their help. About two years after walking off the job, Mr. Coppola said, the contractor returned to tidy up.

Ms. Trost said she and Ms. Wielock "made some phone calls."

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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