City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s active Twitter account is an important part of her persona. Whether she’s touring La Marqueta across the street from her district office, sharing pictures of her isla del encanto Puerto Rico, or reiterating her disgust for Donald Trump and his supporters, the speaker uses her Twitter feed as a means of softening her—shall we say—prickly personality.
Yesterday, Mark-Viverito was out on a walking tour of her district when she encountered a broken walk/don’t walk signal hanging off a lamppost. The speaker tweeted the Department of Transportation, asking with only the faintest hint of noblesse oblige, “Can you take care of it please? Gracias.”
Someone at DOT must have found Mark-Viverito’s tone annoying, because he or she tweeted back a reminder that calling 311—the city’s complaint line—is the best way to get fast action on pedestrian-signal issues. Mark-Viverito responded with a classic example of “do you know who I am” outrage: “I’m sorry . . . whaaaat??? This a joke? Or an auto response? Or maybe even an intern? Not a response for an elected.”
Normally, an “elected” faced with this type of problem would call the operational person at the agency in question. Surely the speaker and her staff know transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg and her own staff quite well. It would have been easy for them to get in touch with the person who assigns these fix-it jobs. Anyone who has ever worked for an “elected” knows that this type of thing happens all the time, behind the scenes.
The problem with expediting nuts-and-bolts government, however, is that it’s hard for the local official to claim credit when things are working well. What can Melissa Mark-Viverito say when people in her district accuse her of being an elitist who doesn’t care about the neighborhood—“Don’t you see all the functioning walk signs?” By ordering around DOT staff on Twitter, the speaker hoped to demonstrate her credentials both as an on-the-street Jane Pothole type of politician and as a boss in the old Tammany mode, snapping her fingers and getting things done. Social media allows a neurotic and defensive official to demonstrate status with such shows of dominance.
But Mark-Viverito miscalculated, because the DOT’s social-media person out-trolled her by advising everyone that, Yes, the DOT will take note of the complaint, but 311 remains the best place to take these matters—which happens to be true. The whole point of the 311 system is to normalize a haphazard system of complaints. The municipal-service hotline represents the victory of technocracy over Tammany—but it doesn’t serve the purposes of vainglorious officials who want credit for things that they don’t actually do.
Mark-Viverito’s response to the DOT was revealing and unflattering. Every additional “a” and “?” in her “Whaaaat???” outburst represents another gradation of entitlement. One hears echoes of angry country club members at poolside yelling at the towel boy; or lunatic millionaire basketball players whose Ferraris have been inadequately polished; or matrons irritated that they have been booked on the regular Jitney instead of the Ambassador to Amagansett. “Whaaaat???”
Get a grip, Madame Speaker. If you want special service, use your direct line to Polly Trottenberg. If you want to show off on Twitter, two can play that game.
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