Blog posts for the weekly #TopekaTweetALongs. Follow @cityoftopeka on Twitter if you want the live action coverage. for collection of tweets.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Felling a tree with City Forestry

TL;DR: Forestry crews get 80-foot views of the City almost daily. Their job involves a lot more training and physics than you probably know. If you've got a tree issue, call 368-3111, but know we only deal with trees in the public rights of way.

Trying something new this week with Storify so we can get some videos in this thing. Let me know if you like it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Walking skeletons and dead pets: Animal control officers can't unsee what people to do pets

TL;DR Dead pets without a home end up in a garbage bin. Animal control officers enforce ordinances to keep animals, people safe. Somehow, animal control officers haven't entirely written off humanity.

If you see a dead animal or roaming pet or want to report a concern about an animal, you can call animal control directly: 785-368-9203.

Storify compilation of tweets has a lot more information, including details from Helping Hands Humane Society, where Animal Control takes the dogs and cats it picks up.

At the Topeka dump, there is a green garbage bin that sits by itself, surrounded by but isolated from the dozens of bins that litter the yard.

When I learned what it held, its isolation made sense: It's alone, because it carries stories of untold sorrow. But after spending a day with an animal control officer, I know now those stories are reserved for the living.

The lone bin holds the dead animals Animal Control picks up. It's one of their jobs. Usually, it's a deer, possum, raccoon, the occasional squirrel.

But other times -- after a thorough search for an owner or microchip or something, anything, to claim them -- this bin holds the bodies of dead pets.

Yesterday, the bin held the body of a yellow lab. A bag covered his head. I don't know his story. But it was not an easy thing to see.

Looking at its body, lying in the bottom of a garbage bin, surrounded by flies, I thought of the dogs I see running loose on the streets. Topeka has a leash law, and this trash bin is a big reason.

ACO Hopkinson
"Some people don't understand the repercussions of letting your dog run loose," said Animal Control Officer Lori Hopkinson. "Too many things can go wrong."

Trying to keep it together, I asked her if she had become desensitized to seeing dead pets after nine years on the job.

To an extent, she said, but only because she has seen much, much worse.

Hopkinson talked about a pregnant cat who was tortured and left for dead in a feedsack.

She talked about seeing dogs die of starvation on a chain, for no other reason than they were left outside and forgotten.

Some owners try to argue the dog just suddenly died overnight, but Hopkinson can see the ribs, the signs of a slow death. She points out these signs to the others, refusing to let them off the hook. And then she cites them with cruelty.

Animal Control Supervisor Linda Halford talks about the starvation cases, too.

"Walking skeletons," she said. "There are a lot of those. Sometimes they cannot be recovered. Those are hard. Those are hard. Anytime that happens."

These cruelty cases, Hopkinson said, are the worst part of her job.

"Those are heart breakers, that somebody would actually do this to an animal."

"Have you lost your faith in humanity?" I asked her.

"You do sometimes," Hopkinson said. "You learn to hate people and love animals, knowing it's not the animal's fault if their aggressive. You do try to give people the benefit of the doubt."

Topeka ordinances that help keep animals, and people, safe are based on common sense.

Take dogs, for example. They can't be tethered for more than 15 minutes unsupervised. They must be on a leash. They must have access to food, water, shelter, protection from the environment. Officers are trained to see the signs of neglect and abuse.

When they see it, they can seize the dog and charge the owner accordingly. That, however, has given officers a bad name.

"People think we are just dog catcher or the people who take your dog away," Hopkinson said. "It's so much more than that. And if we do that, it's a last resort."

Education and voluntary compliance are preferred, she said. She proved that Wednesday.

First call
The first call we went on was a report of starving dogs in a crate on the front porch of a house on S.E. California. Sure enough, there were dogs in a crate -- a mother and four pups, to be exact (they were adorable, for the record) -- but the owners were home. The dogs had been in the crate for about an hour while they prepped the house for a bath.

The owner had just moved from Texas and hadn't licensed the mother. Hopkinson, rather than taking the dog or citing the owner ($100 fine), went back to her truck and got a license form ($8).

"The thing about this job is not to jump to conclusions," she said as we walked back to the truck. Later she continued, "We have to use judgment."

Animal control officers had 4,419 assigned calls so far this year, as of Sept. 17. Last year to that date, it was 4,833. Most of those are about loose dogs or checking the welfare.

Unwanted animals dumped here often stick around, waiting
When animal control officers aren't working calls, Hopkinson said, they either check the welfare on previous cases or drive around their assigned area (East, West or Citywide), looking for loose pets, cruelty violations and roadkill. She said she tries to make it to the boat ramp in the 4400 block of N.E. Seward at least once a day. It's a popular dump site for unwanted animals, she said.

"Sometimes they hang around, just waiting for their owners to come back," she said of the pets. "They don't understand."

Hopkinson was an animal control officer from 1997 to 2004. She left because she couldn't take it anymore. Seeing dogs go back to abusive homes. Watching neglectful owners walk. The division of six officers typically is at least one person short, Halford said.

"This is a rough job," said Halford, who has been an ACO for 31 years. "It's not easy to keep people. Nobody stays like I do. This has never been just 'a job' for me. And it shouldn't be. For anyone."

Hopkinson came back in March of this year, because, she said, no other job left her feeling as fulfilled.

"To be an animal control officer, you have to have a big heart and a strong constitution," she said. "You have to separate yourself from what you want to do to these people and with what needs to be done. And you have to have compassion for these animals, because they don't get it at home."

Both Hopkinson and Halford agree that things are better than they were before. But there still are things we could do. Institute a mandatory spay/neuter law, for example. Or put more teeth in our ordinances to ensure harsher punishment for people who are cruel to animals.

After talking with Halford for about an hour, she had this final thought to share with Topeka:

"Taking on a pet is a responsibility. It means taking on the responsibility of that animal's life. That you will do whatever it takes, provide whatever it takes, pay whatever it may take. If you're not willing to do that, don't get a pet in the first place."
For adoptable pets the ACO picks up, visit

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Vactor Trucks: Protecting our sewers from ourselves...and roots

TL;DR Vactor Trucks are hard to miss and help keep our stormwater and wastewater systems free of backups. Watch what you flush down the toilet/blow into your streets. Keep your easements clean. Issues? Call 368-3111.

For more photos, videos and conversation, check out the compilation of tweets on Storify.

Vactor Truck crews spend their days looking down on people.

Seriously, (video) their rig is like 12 feet tall. I had to jump to get to the first step.

But the three I rode around with -- Ray Martin, Steve Rishel and Chuck Roberts -- don't let that get to their heads. They even go by nicknames: Ray Ray, Crusty Steve and Chuckles.

"Dealing with what we deal with, you've got to have a sense of humor," said Martin, who has worked with Vactor Trucks for 13 years.
Crusty Steve and Ray Ray 
Vactor Trucks (OK, technically it's a Vac-Con. Vactor is a brand, like Kleenex, but that's how we all know them, so I'm going with it) are responsible for clearing stormwater and sewer mains of debris, to keep...things...running smoothly.

One of the tanks for water
The massive Vactor Truck has two main tools: A hose on the front that is powered by 1,500 gallons of water stored in tanks on the truck. That hose pumps 2,000 pounds of pressure and about 65 gallons a minute, using water to get things moving in the pipes.

The other tool is the big thing that goes over the top of the truck. It's a vacuum with enough power to lift a 180-pound manhole off the ground.

"It'll suck ideas right out of your head," Martin joked from inside the cab.
crazy-powerful water hose

I first learned about the power of Vactor trucks when I went out with the sewer camera crew. They came out to (video) clear a root ball with a root saw powered by water. The camera crew found it while making its rounds. Turns out, those calls are a fairly small part of their job.

The City's five Vactor trucks (four mammoths like the one I rode around in, one "small bus" used during night shifts) inspect and clear City sewer and stormwater mains each weekday. They have a run list with sewer mains they check on a routine basis. Some, in the older, heavily forested parts of town, need checked every six months. Others, the newer mains made out of PVC pipe, only need checked about once every 10 years. Crews also routinely check stormwater drains that are known to back up, especially before and after a storm.

Vactor crews -- whether they are collections (cleaning) or repairs -- typically work 8 to 4, but for one week about once every month, a few crews are on-call after 3:30 p.m. in addition to their normal shift. They are the ones responding to an emergency sewage backups or an overflow from a storm in the dead of night.

Martin filling out paperwork -- his favorite.
"Sometimes it kills us," Martin said, "other times we're just twiddling our thumbs."

Crews of three spend their days inspecting and clearing these lines, if and until they receive a work order from our e311 system or an emergency call, like when a sewer backs up into a resident's property. They drop what they're doing, and head over.

We did that today. Our first job was to respond to an e311 report of a clogged stormwater drain. Minutes after we determined the drains had no issues, we got a call on a residential sewage backup. On that call, we cleared our main. If that doesn't fix it, the problem is with the private line from the home to the main, and that's the homeowner's responsibility.

Martin offered some tips to avoid a Vactor Truck pulling in front of your house: Watch what you flush down the toilet or put down the drain. Grease is a definite no-no, but paper towels clog things up, too. Also, if you want to keep your storm drains clear, watch what you blow out into the street: Leaves and grass certainly don't help things.

It's also the responsibility of the homeowner to give our crews easy access to the easements, where the manhole covers to the mains are located. There was no shortage of frustration among the crew today when we showed up on the backup, only to find the easements blocked by fences and overgrowth.

This crew spent about 30 minutes just trying to find and access the manhole, all the while the home's basement was backing up with sewage. Keeping your easements clear helps us as much as it helps you.

While these crews have routine maintenance to do, they are eager to respond to the needs of the community. Storm drain clogged? Sewer backing up? Report it with our e311 system. There's a new app for smartphones, or you can call our call center 785-368-3111.

Next week I'm going out with the Topeka Police Department's Animal Control Unit. Already mentally preparing myself not to take any animals home with me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Property maintenance and mental health

TL;DR Property code enforcement involves more patience, compassion and understanding than you can imagine. Topeka's seven code inspectors handle 20,000 properties -- each.

Check out the #topekatweetalong compiled here.

Dennis Boyles
Driving around Hi-Crest with property maintenance code inspector Dennis Boyles is a trip.

Yes, he sees the property code violations -- after 18 years in the business, that's second nature. And he intentionally takes routes through his area (mostly central Topeka and Hi-Crest East of Adams) so he can be proactive about code enforcement.

But having lived in Topeka almost 63 years, Boyles knows the stories behind what he sees, too.

Like the house that has people living it with no utilities. Or the house, vacant according to records, that is home to a homeless man. Boyles cited the home, and the man cleaned it up.

Some people see a tent with random objects throughout the lawn. Boyles sees James, who has become a staple in the neighborhood by mowing lawns for extra money. He once gave James $5 to get gas for the lawn mower. Driving by later, James, mowing a lawn, gave Boyles a thumbs up.

As the lead field inspector, Boyles knows his trade well. Some of it is what you would expect: Citing homes for overgrown weeds or flaking paint or leaky roofs. He went into some detail about the bad perception of the code enforcement department, explaining, like property maintenance manager Mike Haugen did last week in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal, that enforcement is a process. It has to go through proper notification and legal actions before action can be taken sometimes. Some graffiti on a home in Hi-Crest, for example, could take 30 to 45 days to fix, if they can't reach the owner.

Graffiti on a home in Hi-Crest
But there's another side I saw Wednesday I wasn't expecting.

Our first two stops were to visit tenants who wanted to report their landlords for neglect. The first was a home for patients of Valeo Behavioral Health Care. The second was a friend of the first, who has come on hard times. Both had a lot of concerns, and a lot to say -- and many problems Boyles couldn't help them with.

But he never said that. He patiently listened, in his "Father John" pose, offering to connect them to other resources, showing interest and concern about what they were saying and promising to follow up with them and their landlords. Quite a bit of his job as a property code inspector, he said, involves social work and mental health issues.

Father John pose

"To do this job, you have to have a sense of humor and be patient," Boyles said. "That last one came with age." (Boyles cracks a lot of jokes about his age, 63.)

Cases like the first we saw today, when seven people served by Valeo are living in a home that could be condemned, bother Boyles. Enforcing property maintenance code could mean those people lose their homes.

"I'm not sure if we're doing a service or disservice" in those cases, he said.

Boyles describes two camps of people: Those who flat-out refuse to comply with the property maintenance code, and those who want to, but can't.

He doesn't like not being able to help people in that second camp. To illustrate: When you cite people, oftentimes you don't know if, for example, the person has a serious medical issue. In many cases, if that person had money to pay the court fine, they would have used it to pay someone to mow the lawn.

"We just don't have the resources," he said. Each of the seven code inspectors oversees 20,000 properties, he said.
Boyles out in the field. Takes 62 touches to enter a report. Yes, the truck is stopped.

The City of Topeka is working on a couple of volunteer programs to help with cases just like that. One is the Rock the Block initiative with Highland Park. It kicks off with a carnival and resource fair Saturday, but essentially is a volunteer opportunity for the Highland Park High School students to clean up blocks in their neighborhoods a couple of days each month. The other program, which is targeted toward people who want to volunteer in Topeka generally, still is in the works. Trust: When it's time to roll it out, there will be announcements about it and ways to sign up.

This barely touches the surface of what Boyles showed me today. If you want to see the rest, check out a compilation of the tweets.

Next week, I'm going around with the vactor truck crew. You might remember them from the Sewer TV edition, when they cleared tree roots from a sewer pipe. I'm told it will be an adventure.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Emotional day in court for Alt. Sentencing

TL;DR Come to an Alternative Sentencing Court -- a sentencing court designed to keep defendants with mental health issues out of jail and into the services that can help them. Just watching the trust built between these defendants and figures of authority, and the care the ASC panel has for them, is guaranteed to motivate you.

Mock of the "hot seat" at ASC. No cameras allowed in courtroom.

I honestly didn't know what to expect, walking into Topeka Municipal Court's Alternative Sentencing Court Wednesday.

I knew it was a program we started in January for defendants with mental health issues who had been convicted or charged with misdemeanor criminal or traffic offenses. Instead of going to jail, we put them in a yearlong program, in which they have to pass regular drug tests, attend regular meetings and court sessions and go to various programs, like anger management and substance abuse services.

But I definitely didn't expect to see the amount of trust these defendants placed on the ASC panel, a panel that consisted of social workers from the VA, a police officer, a probation officer, attorneys and a judge. A group of people those caught up in the justice system rarely even have respect for, let alone could come to trust.

I know. I'm the City spokeswoman. I'm supposed to say that. If you have any doubts, look at the interactions I witnessed today. (Apologies. No cameras allowed in court, so the images today are from the Twitter feed and a mock after it was over):

 This gentleman had been causing a ruckus in the hallway not 15 minutes before this interaction:

More about this woman in the first bullet.

It hasn't always been this way. Topeka Municipal Court Administrative Judge Vic Miller, who presided over today's ASC, said at the very first meetings in January, some of the defendants were like zombies.

"One of the things that has surprised me is how well they embrace the group, not just those up here, but there's a connection among the people in this program as well," Miller said. "I think they, just like us up here, get a benefit out of seeing others improve through this."

Seeing that trust, that relationship in person (I sat up with the panel, so I could see their faces), was a truly powerful thing:

  • I saw a woman in tears, frustrated with herself and her alcoholism -- a problem the 43-year-old woman doesn't understand, after spending half of her life addicted to drugs. She failed her BA test Wednesday: .102. She started ASC in January after being convicted of DUI. She could have been phased to weekly or even monthly court reviews, but wanted to keep coming every week to have some accountability.

  • I saw a 51-year-old man who was convicted of criminal trespass, battery, theft and disorderly conduct try to brighten the Judge's day, and smile big when he graduated into Phase 2 (court review every other week). We all clapped for him.

  • And I saw a woman,  25, beam as Judge Miller read her six tips (her assignment was five, by the way) to keeping a cool head. She was convicted of battery and has been in ASC only since June. Her list was good advice for all of us, actually:
  • Do crafts
  • Talk to staff
  • Ignore it
  • Take a deep breath and count to 10
  • Walk away
  • Listen to
Then there was this, which kind of sums up a lot of the program:

This service has helped people get off the streets and into permanent housing (there was one today, in fact). It's helped them find jobs. Gets them connected with therapy. They even give out bus tickets if they need them. Keeping them regular on their medication is another big part of it, Miller said.

"Medication can help so much of this," he said. "It doesn't solve everything, but when they're on the right meds, it can do wonders."

This program truly is making a difference for some of the most vulnerable in our community. I didn't know what to expect walking into ASC Wednesday, but I didn't expect to leave inspired.

Another mock shot of ASC. Woman in purple (Heather) is where defendants sit)

More information on ASC:

  • Started Jan. 7, 2015, so no one completely through yet, though some have been on since January. Six have dropped out. When that happens, probation is revoked and they serve their jail sentence.
  • 17 are enrolled right now, all in probation program. Convictions include criminal trespass, abusing toxic vapors, DUI, disorderly conduct, false alarm, assaulting a law enforcement officer and battery. Ages range from 19 to 60.
  • ASC involves treatment, regular court, regular drug testing, payment of court fees and paying for treatment To successfully complete the ASC program, defendants have to make all appointments and court reviews and have clean blood tests for one year. It is a phase-based program with four phases: 
  • Phase 1: Court review each week
  • Phase 2: Court review every other week
  • Phase 3: Court review one time each month
  • Phase 4: Graduation
  • Takes one year to complete

  • Programs for ASC defendants range from substance abuse and housing services to mental health counseling and job programs. Each person has their own, individual program developed by the partnership between court, attorneys, probation and jail. 
  • ASC convenes at 2 every Wednesday in the Topeka Municipal Court, 214 S.E. 8th.

Next week's tweet-a-long is the much anticipated property maintenance code version. It'll be from 1-3 Wednesday. Hope you have a great holiday weekend.