Greater Greater Washington

Be civil toward your government employees

Please, offer your nearest local government employee a hug or at least a handshake. Repeat often.


Photo by seanbjack on Flickr.

I recently took a job in the nonprofit sector after eight years of working in our local government. First as a Council staffer, then a mayoral aide, then an agency spokesperson and senior manager, I have worked with hundreds of my fellow District residents in resolving their issues big and small.

I've been involved with everything from purchase orders to potholes, legislation to liquor licenses and most recently, DC Water's massive engineering solution to the flooding problems that have plagued Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park for generations.

In doing this work, I've met plenty of incredibly kind and supportive people both inside and outside the government. Some have even become lifelong friends. But like many of my colleagues, I've also taken a beating from plenty of constituents or customers.

Especially when hidden behind a keyboard, some people apparently feel free to unload their frustrations in ways that far overshoot the bounds of civility.

Over just the past several months, my agency and I have been called insulting, negligent, cowardly, incompetent, inadequate, frustrating, cheap, clueless, mouthpieces, cowardly, villains, obstructionist, inferior, demeaning, unwilling, empty and inconsequential. My boss, a member of my staff and I were told repeatedly and publicly that we should resign or be fired. Note that all of this came from a single customer.

My message to those who say things like this is simple: knock it off. Government isn't something that happens to people without their active involvement, and government employees are not the help. When they fail you or give you an answer you don't like, they're not working to make your life less pleasant on purpose.

At their best, I believe this is a group of people called to serve a greater good. Even at their worst, even if only motivated by a desire to earn a paycheck at a steady and stable job, they deserve no more ire or disrespect than any other professional in a different line of work. Would you direct words like these at a doctor, a grocery cashier or a dog walker? Hardly.

The other problem with this uncivil discourse is that it tends to be aimed squarely at people who either didn't cause the problem or are actively trying to fix it. Taking the present management of an agency to task for something their predecessors didn't do decades ago is neither fair nor wiseespecially when they are doing it now.

It is not the DMV clerk's fault that the law requires a certain type of document to prove your identity. And the workers standing calf-deep in cold water to fix the pipe outside your house didn't cause it to break and interrupt your water service. Yelling at them not only demoralizes people who are working to help, but distracts them from doing the actual helping. Folks, it's really time to stop berating the surgical team while they're standing over the bleeding patient.

What if we instead approached our public servants with kindness, patience and gratitude? My suspicion is that we'd end up with happier people, less burnout and better government as a result.

It has been nearly 8 years, but I will always remember the words of one particularly grateful constituent in Columbia Heights long after I forget her name or the service I performed on her behalf. She wrote, "You have single-handedly restored my faith in the institution of government."

At the time, I took great comfort in her words and hung them on my cubicle wall as a shining example of what I wished I heard more often. Today, I realize that if one's faithor lack of faithin the institution of government depends on the actions of a single person, government's relationship to its constituents is precarious at best. Even though improving that relationship isn't my job as an employee anymore, it will always be my job as a private citizen.

And I owe those on the other side of the service window, the phone line or the email inbox the same courtesy I hope they will extend to me.

Alan Heymann was Chief of External Affairs for DC Water until February 15. He has held several senior communications positions across the District government, and before that worked at two television stations in Chicago and downstate Illinois. Alan holds a JD from GWU and a BS in Journalism from Northwestern. He lives with his wife and daughter in Columbia Heights.  

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I work for a small non profit in a neighboring county and I am shocked at how badly municipal employees are treated, especially at what I affectionately refer to as "target practice"--town-hall style meetings at elected officials' offices... I don't know how the employees keep their composure. I am also tarred with the same brush even often but I don't have to suck it up like they do. NoVA residents should be ashamed of themselves they way they treat people who are working (with ever flagging morale) keep the quality of life up in neighborhoods, required to do more with less. I would think long and hard before I took a municipal job in this region.

by Mothra Smith on Feb 17, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

"And I owe those on the other side of the service window, the phone line or the email inbox the same courtesy I hope they will extend to me."

Therein lies the rub: the customer service end of the equation, on the part of the government employees, is often the catalyst in citizens' dismay and disillusionment with government employees.

I have worked in customer service, in both the private sector and higher education, for over 17 years. And things that tend to act as a soothing tonic to a seething customer are empathy, courtesy, and respect of the customer.

Yes, it is frustrating to encounter a seemingly endless stream of disgruntled customers in daily work. But it is hard to come across as an advocate for both the customer and your office if the government employee's respons is curt, gruff, and disrespectful of the customer's situation. Empathy is key: put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side of the conversation, actively listen to their story, and find common ground.

I realize that there are a fair number of government employees who practice good, if not great, customer service. But even in my own experience, here in DC and in other states and cities, there are a fair number of government employees who interact with citizens as if it's their own time that's being wasted in every interaction, showing no respect for the citizens (i.e. the paying customers), and no real respect for the government entity they represent.

It's very tough to not get angry at a government employee who seems to want to be anywhere but where they are, who acts burned out in their job, and who treats citizens as an annoyance. So my plea to government employees: empathy will win you (and often, by association, your employer) support and respect.

Customer service does, in fact, matter.

by randomduck on Feb 17, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

Holy Smokes, there are a lot of sides to this: not only constituents, but elected officials are to blame. Politicians routinely humiliate, threaten, and bully staff in public, and in private expect their behavior to be treated as "part of the game."

Staff are pawns in disputes in fights among elected officials, and staff work is difficult to complete because any competent senior official is only too aware of the implications of their work to each combatant - only a complete lack of awareness would actually assure objectivity, but lack of awareness is not actually a possibility.

There are also abysmal, toxic public employees who can't be changed or dismissed, just moved to places where they won't be as much of a problem.

Every burdensome form, certification, attestation, etc. that is required of businesses or people has a genesis: I've been there for the creation of a variety of these. Because my governing body couldn't do anything about the embarrassing activities of a contractor, a new form and self-certification of cleanliness was created so the governors could be seen to be "doing something". The list is endless.

The over-riding point is that people should treat the people before them, government employees or not, based on the situational facts of the human interaction before them. However, this requires people to be situationally present, thoughtful, and committed to appropriate behavior. This is challenging for many people to pull off.

It's even harder to pull off when the other person belongs to a "morally castigated" group, like smokers, drunk drivers, sex criminals, or, after three decades of relentless castigation, government employees.

by jnb on Feb 17, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

While I agree with your point, I think there is a disconnect between your argument and the reason why people treat others without civility.

You are right, it is not the DMV worker's fault that the rules are stupid. However, seemingly, there is nobody responsible for that. And worse, while the DMV worker knows that the rules suck, he has no way to make them work. Yet, it is the DMV clark, and the citizen who have to work with the stupid rules.

This is the same problem that all customer representatives have. The people that make the rules are utterly insulated from customer interaction, and therefore never have to deal with the stupid, uncivil and impolite rules they make.

Is there an easy solution to this? Not really. However, it would help if rule makers, be it in industry or government, were forced to deal with the consequences of their policies once in a while. Few places do this. In fact, you can see how eye-opening this is on tv-shows like 'Undercover boss'. I believe Marriott forces/allows their management to work one week a year at the customer level. They are sent out to a random place, and have to check in customers, sit on the phone bank with customer, anything for a week. Needless to say, Marriott has pretty decent customer service (that you pay plenty for).

I guess the solution is that government officials should not just do site visits, where most of what they do is see how pretty a facility is, but do actual work.

Other than that, everybody should be civil.

by Jasper on Feb 19, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

As a former bank teller who endured reams of abuse for having the gall to ask for ID I can empathize.

Or when talking about DC and people mention that government jobs aren't "real" jobs since they are paid for via taxes.

by drumz on Feb 19, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

Whatever. From my own experience, anytime I've seen rudeness or brusqueness, it's been 95% on the city government employee side. I certainly do not condone berating or verbally attacking city employees. However, often I believe the problem could be averted by a city employee delivering the bad news with an "I'm sorry, but the rule is x, y, or z" looking the other person in the eye rather than a stone faced or brusque "no, rule is X" and eye roll.

by I. Rex on Feb 19, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

If a Metro employee is unusually nice to me, or goes out of the way to do a good job, I'll be sure to fill out a comment on WMATA's website. Apparently, they do pass the comments onto the employees/supervisors if they can identify them. Government employees take a lot of flak, so I try to make sure that the bosses know who the good ones are.

I also remember having an unusually positive experience with the DMV when I moved here -- the receptionists were very thorough in making sure that you had all of the correct documentation before you got in the enormous queue. When I first went, there was something wrong with my social security card, and I hadn't yet gotten any utility bills at my new address. The receptionist handed me directions to the Social Security office ("Go there first. It closes at 3"), and handed me an obscure form that my landlord could sign in lieu of a utility bill.

It would have been nice if the DMV website was more clear on those issues, but the employees there were all great, and made the experience substantially less painful than it is in most other places.

by andrew on Feb 19, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

Civil servants and private-sector customer service employees are fundamentally different in one significant way. Many civil servants are in place to uphold and implement regulations, regulations which often result in, "No, you cannot do that," and the "customer" has no other government or law to choose from (unless they move their household, which is not an everyday solution).

Private-sector customer service is about how to get the customer to "Yes, we can do that." If not, the customer will go to another company.

For private-sector, yes, empathy and courtesy is part of the sale. For civil servants, no amount of empaythy or courtesy is going to derail the constituent who is hell-bent to bully their way through a regulation or restriction.

Constituents aren't customers. All constituents are equal and have the same rights to the same services as everybody else. Customers, because they all haggle and bargain differently, are not equal.

by Crin on Feb 19, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

Question for public service people that deal with the public, particularly planners, are you empowered at all to push back? I've been to public meetings before when some citizens were bat$hit crazy, and spouting off and berating staff, who just mutely take it. In the jurisdiction that I live in, I have heard from planners that its not a desired place to work for because the citizens can really be obnoxious intense and use public forums as platforms for various grievances. The are also quite prolific with emails and phone calls, which they expect to be returned immediately. Naturally, most of their complaints have to do with policy and not the people who attempt to administer them, but to them it makes no difference.

If a citizen tries to rip you a new one, berates you personally in public, etc., you just have to take it and senior staff will not back you up or try to turn down the heat. I've seen the antics of people at meetings, which is one of the reasons why I stopped attending public meetings because they're largely useless forums that repeatedly draw the same case of characters repeating the same complaints and firing at the same targets over and over. I admire that public servants can stay cool and put up with a lot, but you shouldn't have to.

by spookiness on Feb 19, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

The District government has stolen $691 from me and is currently trying to steal another $691. Everyone in the tax office whom I have spoken to has been too bored to try and help me. Letters, emails, and voicemails go unanswered. Tell me, why should I be nice to them when they don't give a damn about trying to help me?

by Matt on Feb 19, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

I understand both sides having worked at all levels of government and of course as a citizen trying to get government services. At the end of the day though I was taught that you should try to be respectful to everyone you interact with. Sadly, a lot of people think its perfectly acceptable to berate anyone that they feel is "below" them. I know working in transportation some people definitely have legitimate gripes, but some people also clearly just find workers an easy target to vent their unhappiness of the moment whatever the actual reason is. On the otherhand, there are often some legitimate gripes with government regarding transparency and excessive bureaucracy. Of course it gets taken out on the lowest down the totem pole too often. In general, sometimes the only thing you can do is try to empathize with the complainer and if you can't fix their problem, hope that having someone listen to them is good enough for now.

by Alan B. on Feb 19, 2013 10:53 am • linkreport

I 100% agree. And it also takes two to tango. Just because you have had a bad morning doesn't give you an excuse to go into a place of business and act like a butthole because. The same applies to employees. I have (many times) been on the receiving end of someone's stank attitude and most times than not, I've always been able to diffuse the situation and create harmony by throwing a bit of "personality" into the fray and still not feel as if I've given up something.

We need better civility across the board and should realize that "customers" need to check their attitudes at the door.

by HogWash on Feb 19, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

@ Crin:Private-sector customer service is about how to get the customer to "Yes, we can do that." If not, the customer will go to another company.

LOL. Have you dealt with any large company recently? Say a bank, an insurance company, a cable company, ticketbastard, a cell phone company, a power company, an online retailer? You're lucky if you get to talk to a person at all.

by Jasper on Feb 19, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Finally, a post on GGW I feel I can chime in on.

I am a civic association president of a community in S.E. Fairfax. Over the past six years in the position, the community has been very fortunate to get a number of priorities taken care of from any number of government agencies, both state and county. After resolving one long standing issue regarding something like traffic light timing, I asked the person I was working with why we got such great service. The answer was simple, "Well, you guys don't just call up and start yelling at us.

Treating the staffer politely and as a professional goes quite a ways. In my position, it also helps built a cordial relationship that pays dividends down the road. And when things do go pear shaped and being less civil is required, it isn't just white noise. I'm surprised more folks haven't figured this out.

by Chris S. on Feb 19, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

While I agree with the point that govt employees deserve greater civility, I don't think they are alone in facing the wrath of disgruntled customers.

...they deserve no more ire or disrespect than any other professional in a different line of work. Would you direct words like these at a doctor, a grocery cashier or a dog
walker?

Maybe not but would you direct uncivil language toward huge bureacratic organizations that seem to be without accountability such as your cell phone company, Pepco, airline, cable company, bank, or Facebook? Probably so considering the number of websites (usually with "suck" in the name) dedicated to ripping these companies services.

Government isn't something that happens to people without their active involvement, and government employees are not the help.

Actually, I'd say "the help" deserves the same respect you would give public servants and vice versa.

The District government has stolen $691 from me and is currently trying to steal another $691. Everyone in the tax office whom I have spoken to has been too bored to try and help me.

Yeah, that's pretty typical for the DC Dept of Taxation. It's not that they actually want to rip you off, they just don't want you to bother them with asking them to do their job.

by Falls Church on Feb 19, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

Tell me, why should I be nice to them when they don't give a damn about trying to help me?

Because you're an adult whom I'm sure have been raised w/an appropriate amount of public decorum in mind. No, being given the run around does not give you license to act an ass. Pen to paper makes a much greater impact than you showing out. But showing is just so much easier.

by HogWash on Feb 19, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

BTW, I've owed the same $375 each year since I paid it back in 2002. I haven't my "3-at-once" mail bundles this year so maybe it's all good now.

by HogWash on Feb 19, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

My most recent experience with DC city government workers was:

Going through a gauntlet of 30-something armed rent-a-cops who talked to me like a child.

Having the woman who signed the property tax letter I was coming in to discuss refuse to come downstairs to talk to me - AFTER I had tried unsuccessfully for a month to reach her by phone, sometimes being on hold for an hour.

Having the building receptionist get on the phone and actually beg the tax woman to talk to me on the phone.

Having said tax woman tell me "I can't do anything for you!" and hang up.

Now I've hired a lawyer.

by ceefer66 on Feb 19, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

Can I pick out a few experiences with rude, lazy, and/or incompetent government employees (of all levels, in lots of places)? Sure. But just today I had a minor issue with a DC government thing, and the person I spoke to (nicely, patiently) fixed it promptly for me. That's *generally* been my experience with day-to-day DC workers. They may be hemmed in by regulations, they may have problematic co-workers who they can only lightly cajole to behave better, but they've generally done what they can. Which is more than I can say for employees, and even management or corporate parents, of a NUMBER of private businesses.

Fortunately, when I was a fed with my direct line publicly available, my managers were in full support of my approach to angry phone calls. If someone called me up PO'ed to the point that they were being abusive, I'd simply start with "Sir (they were ALWAYS men if they were acting like that), I'm happy to help you right now, in whatever way I can, if you calm down and let me explain what is going on with this {thing}, how you fit into it, and what you can do. Or I can hang up and you can call me back when you've calmed down. Your choice." Since I sound younger than I am (and look it, too), I occasionally whipped out a "wow, I hope you don't speak to your daughter that way" if they sounded to be middle-age or older and were being particularly rude. I literally had conversations start with a cascade of cursing and end with prolific thank yous (and, often, apologies for the rude beginning), even if they were still kind of screwed (at least they understood a kind of obscure program and how it worked after I got through with them). The 2 or 3 percent who persisted either got hung up on and screened until they left a message apologizing and asking for help or directed to my manager, who hung up on them for me. While I hate the "I pay your salary" attitude, even if that's true, that doesn't give you a right to be abusive. If the owner, manager, or whatnot in a private business behaved that way toward their employees, they could end up in legal trouble. OTOH, people who are and were nice to me, even if it took a dressing-down to get them to cut the attitude, got as much as I could give them (I have never been in a position to give people *preferential* treatment, but I've been in numerous situations where I can make things easier or harder depending on your attitude). Who knows, maybe I just have the right combination of innocence (so you shouldn't be swearing at me) and authority (if you want some help) in my voice to make this work, but it's almost always worked for me.

Plus, it's true that you catch more flies with honey, and all that. Screaming at or berating someone is unlikely to make them want to help you. You say that employees need to empathize, but that's a two-way street. You're having a problem, maybe it's even complicated, maybe you've got the wrong person to help you. Sure, that's frustrating. But so is dealing with a bunch of jerks who think that, well, being a jerk is going to get them the best, fastest results. There's a human being on BOTH ends of the line. Act like it. And if you ARE frustrated or start to get that way, admitting it helps! "Sorry, I don't mean to be short, this is just frustrating. I have written down that I need to do X, Y, and Z, am I missing something?" works WONDERS.

by Ms. D on Feb 19, 2013 8:13 pm • linkreport

@ MsD:"Sorry, I don't mean to be short, this is just frustrating. I have written down that I need to do X, Y, and Z, am I missing something?"

That line helps everywhere when you are loosing your patience. I remember a time when I ended up stranded at LGA on a three-legged flight from Europe to home. The airline did not want to give me a hotel, until I - rather exasperatedly - told the dude I was not upset with him, I just had been up for 24h by then, and rather grumpy with the situation.

However, nothing helps in situations when you're being ground by inflexible rules that are simply stupid.

by Jasper on Feb 19, 2013 8:28 pm • linkreport

The private sector awaits those don't like working with the general public. There a plenty of people who there enjoy the spirited conversations and know how to manage and speak to those in difficult situations. If someone can't handle it, please step aside, your replacement is knocking on the door. Imagine what the MPD/EMS must look forward to on a daily basis. Many of those deecee gubbamint jobs are given to those with political connections anyway. It's like an inbred cult of low achievers.

http://wamu.org/news/11/08/24/dc_council_report_on_hiring_clear_evidence_of_nepotism_and_cronyism.php

by smiley on Feb 19, 2013 10:05 pm • linkreport

Right, but having been in the "hen house," sometimes, there's nothing you can do. You didn't make the rules, and you can bend them somewhat, but you can't break or change them. I had half (or less) jokingly told PO'ed people that, "well, at least you have voting Congressmen and Senators that you can complain to about this issue." We had a LOT of flexibility in my Department, but there were still rules and regulations we couldn't get around to help people. I guess most people I dealt with understood that, if I was kind, patient, and accommodating to them otherwise. I guess my point was two-part. First, we don't deserve to be berated right off the bat, we might just be able to help you out, if you're not a grade-A jerk and let us get a word in edgewise. Second, we can't change the rules. We can help you understand and navigate them...even point you to someone who might be able to help you change them or get an exemption to them. But we're subject to the same rules, made by OTHER people, largely without the input of "on the ground" staff, as you are. I would do whatever I could to help people navigate that minefield (if they could hold their patience and let me explain everything), but I simply didn't have the power to change the rules. Like Andrew's comment. I could only accept document A. I can help you find out how to get document A, and help you avoid standing in a long line only to find out document B is not going to work, but I can't change the fact that document A is what is required. I NEVER took pleasure in telling people that their documents weren't acceptable, but I HAD gone to great lengths before that to help them understand what we required. When it got to that point, they weren't listening to me, and I STILL generally gave them another chance or two SERIOUSLY EMPHASIZING what they were lacking, before just sending them the SAME explanation of the requirements I had sent them off the bat and asking them to re-file when they were ready (while heavily hinting that, if they had trouble understanding our not-too-complicated regulations, they *might* want to hire a lawyer that specializes in this kind of stuff to save their hassle and get results...not that it *couldn't* or *wasn't* done regularly by average people without legal help (seriously, I had NUMEROUS joe everyday small business people come before me and succeed all by their lonesome), but if I've given you 3 chances with HOURS of explanations and you're still not getting it, you probably need professional help).

by Ms. D on Feb 19, 2013 10:10 pm • linkreport

Good article, Alan!

by Mark on Feb 19, 2013 10:17 pm • linkreport

And, also, none of those situations were as dire as being stranded at an airport. Trust me, I've been there, done that with insanities like that. My favorite story was, one time, flying over to China, and our flight was SUBSTANTIALLY delayed (by at least 3 hours, at the outset). We had a connecting flight, so we went up to the counter to get our connecting flight changed, since we were NOT going to make it. The agent at the ticket counter told us she could not change our connecting (codeshare) flight since it was more than 24 hours before that flight, local time. So we asked her what we were to do, and she told us to just get our ticket changed when we got there. A *5* hour delay and lots of gesturing and pointing to our tickets to the agents in Beijing (who were not so good with English - not that they should have been - and kept asking us "you missed flight, yes?") and we THANKFULLY made it onto the last flight of the evening to our destination without paying change fees. There was no reason that their system should not have recognized the time difference + flight time + delay meant we should have been able to rebook state-side. While this may not be a fantastic example (airlines are not known, today, for stellar customer service), it's a true and illustrative example of the private sector being just as hemmed in by technology or policy limitations as any government. My co-worker even had more-than-base frequent flyer status and tried calling in, and was told the same thing...we can't rebook the connection this early. And people wonder why I start drinking as soon as I get into an airport. :)

by Ms. D on Feb 19, 2013 10:54 pm • linkreport

Back in the mists of time, I came to DC with a New York state driver's license, but when I took it to the DC DMV along with one other form of ID, the clerk would not exchange my NY license for anything but a learner's permit. My error? The second form of ID that I brought was my US passport. Passport Equals Foreigner. Duh!

by Turnip on Feb 19, 2013 11:24 pm • linkreport

That's just weird, Turnip, and must be a part of a bygone era. I moved my Ohio license, plates, and registration to DC with the Ohio license, my passport, the title to my car and Ohio registration, and my lease, several years ago, without hassle. 3 years ago, I had only minor hassle when I went to renew my license and get the corrective lenses restriction removed, since I had LASIK in the interim and am now 20/15 (...I haven't even seen 20/20 since I was *8,* and couldn't even quite make out the "E" clearly before surgery, so that was particularly pleasing to me). Yes, I needed a doctor's certification for that (which the clinic anticipated and provided me with) and to pass a 30 second vision test. The clerk *did* ask me if I was wearing contacts, but took my word for it when I said I wasn't.

by Ms. D on Feb 20, 2013 12:42 am • linkreport

Being civil should be expected, but if you've ever seen what goes on inside government- endless meetings, turf battles over asinine matters, rampant waste of tax dollars- it's hard to have much respect for government employees.

by Adam on Feb 20, 2013 9:38 am • linkreport

The biggest problem with DC government employees is that, for many years, the point of DC government has had very little to do with actually providing services to the public. Rather, DC government has served as a means to redistribute wealth and provide jobs for people in exchange for their votes.

This is especially true when it comes to lower level jobs like the DMV. Such agencies exist to employ people who would otherwise be drawing welfare benefits. Any services they provide to the public are incidental.

by Potowmack on Feb 20, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

Potowmack: Do you have any proof to back up your assertion that people who work at the DMV would be drawing welfare benefits if not working there? To my ears, that's a pretty offensive claim.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 20, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

I've sometimes wondered how much of the shouting is simple anger and how much is theatrics calculated to achieve a certain outcome.

One problem is a system that might actually reward citizens for rudeness, because:

a) local government employees tend to be risk adverse and the last thing they want is a bunch of attention drawn to an issue so they'll put out the hottest fires first. This is because they might be punished for political fall-out, but would rarely be rewarded to exemplary service.

b) most enforcement of regulations is complaint-based. Staff have no authority to act upon constructive solutions from the public, except maybe during certain planning phases, but there is a set protocol to act upon complaints. So complaining has real power.

by Daniel on Feb 20, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

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