Putting the Help Where It’s Most Needed

When Ray Bonner, a young lawyer just out of the Marine Corps, came to work with us in 1972, he took up running so relentlessly that he once com­pleted the Boston Marathon event. Bonner is still running as a San Francisco assistant district attor­ney in charge of consumer fraud and white collar crime. He even looks at his job in mobile terms. A month ago, Bonner and the district attorney for San Francisco, Joseph Freitas Jr., launched a consumers’ “Complaintmobile” to bring their services directly to the diverse populations of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Staffed primarily by multi-lingual volunteers trained in mediating com­plaints, the Complaintmobile, a brightly painted, 1957 former mail truck, provides consumer protec­tion and consumer education to people in need.

One day in late July, the van parked at Post and Mason Streets and promptly received its first com­plaint, from 73-year-old Geraldine Johnson. She wanted the city to help some tenants who were being charged for the cost of some fire extinguish­ers that were missing from their building. Media­tion was started between the disputants.

FOR A LAWYER, Bonner speaks some plain English. Here is how he alerts the neighborhoods about the coming of the Complaintmobile.

Flyers are distributed beforehand, saying: “Have You Been Ripped Off?

“Did you take your car to a repair shop and get it back running worse than before?

“Did you buy a piece of furniture that lost its stuffing within a week, and now the store won’t fix it?

“Have you been harassed at work by a collec­tion agency?

“If you feel cheated, we can help. Chinese and Spanish Spoken.

“The Consumer Fraud Unit’s Complaintmobile will be in your neighborhood to discuss the com­plaint and help you resolve it.”

A monthly listing of stops at various parts of the city is also printed with the unit’s telephone num­ber for any additional questions.

Studies of how consumer complaints are ignored around the country have stressed the need for new rights, better enforcement and faster, simple procedures. These are necessary improvements, but they leave out two factors that inhibit people with complaints — distance and unfamiliarity.

THE OPERATORS of our legal system have long ignored the obstacles to using that system be­cause of the time, the coldness and the difficulty of finding one’s way. It does make, for example, a major difference for small claims courts to be widely dispersed around the city. To bring the law to the people where they live or work is to bring the opportunity for justice to millions of citizens who are shut out of the legal system, as a practical matter.

The Complaintmobile reduces many of these obstacles, including the awe or fear that many people have of courts and district attorneys’ of­fices. Bonner realizes the need for humanizing the law and for less formal means of settling small complaints. Having heard of a suggestion for a mobile complaint van when he was in Washington, Bonner mulled it over for two years and met with dozens of community organizations to learn how best to make it work.

“I BEGAN to realize that our services were being used primarily by those San Franciscans who were relatively sophisticated, educated, and mobile,” Bonner said. “On the other hand, those consumers most in need of our services—the low-income, non-English-speaking, minority and elderly members of our community—weren’t bringing their problems to us. The Complaintmobile seemed like an obvious solution,” he added.

Most city neighborhoods are badly in need of a source of strength to back up their many quests for justice that arise out of day to day marketplace transactions. They need their city’s civil servants coming to them and doing something about these injustices whether by mediation or by prosecution for the more serious, widespread violations. The Complaintmobile may be a vanguard for other diffusions of municipal services with community participation in consumer protection matters.

Readers interested in further details can write to Joseph Freitas Jr., District Attorney, San Fran­cisco, 880 Bryant St., San Francisco, Calif. 94103.

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