Dorchester resident Peter Gaffney recently got a new vehicle, and among the items on his to-do list was a trip to Boston City Hall to for a resident parking permit. I caught up with him on the street after he'd completed his transaction and we had the following exchange.
Me: Looks like you just pulled in, threw your blinkers on, five minutes in and out.
Gaffney: Less than five minutes. These girls are terrific. It worked out awesome!
If you’ve ever had to do business at City Hall, Gaffney’s experience — and his enthusiasm — might sound a little suspicious. Exactly where did he stash his car? Doesn't it take about five minutes just to get in and through security? Did he not have to wander the halls at all? Were there no lines?
Perhaps Gaffney was so excited because he didn’t technically go to City Hall. On this chilly fall weekday, City Hall came to him.
"City Hall To Go is a mobile city hall," explained Jacob Wessel, director of Boston’s City Hall To Go program. "We are a nice bright red truck that roams around the city to make sure that people have an accessible way to deal with transactions, questions, and engagement with city government in the city of Boston."
I’ve been curious about City Hall To Go ever since I heard about this bright red, roving, rolling city office. And I decided it was high time to get the inside scoop on how it all works. So I caught up with the red truck in Upham's Corner and climbed inside where Wessel gave me the dime tour. It did not take long.
"What we have in the truck is a copier-scanner, copies of forms and pamplets, wifi, a credit card processing machine, [and] laptops that are hooked up to city systems so we can cross reference things," he said.
Two staffed, service windows open-up along the curbside of the well-marked truck, where residents can belly up to do business with the city. Now, if it sounds a little bit like a food truck, well, there's a reason for that.
"Some folks in the mayor’s office thought up this program just about the time when the city started doing food truck permitting," said Wessel. "They thought, what if we took the idea of food trucks and did the same thing with city government?"
It started off as a pilot program in an old bomb squad truck that was destined for the scrap yard. Five years later they are a nimble team of three, out in the neighborhoods five days a week — Tuesdays through Saturdays — servicing some 300 to 400 residents each month.
"We’ve been everywhere from Hyde Park to Charlestown, from Brighton to East Boston," said Wessel. "We try to get to every neighborhood about twice a month."
They stop in two different neighborhoods each day. Residents can keep an eye on the schedule on the city's website or the program's Twitter feed. Resident parking permits, like the one Gaffney got the ball rolling on, are a popular service at the truck window. Another is what brought Jamaica Plain’s Tanya Jendreck out — disputing a parking ticket, which is something she could also have done online.
"I just think face to face is easier," she told me. "And just traveling and my work schedule I was like, man, it would be really convenient if I didn’t have to go down to City Hall. So I was like, yes!"
In all, there are some 50 services Boston residents can take care of on the spot from registering to vote to paying excise taxes.
"I’d say that some of the best things that we do are birth certificates, so we’ve got a lot of new mothers and families coming by with their little ones, and then dog licenses," said Wessel.
In the early years, City Hall was not on the go in the dark, snowy winter months. But in recent years, that has changed.
"We thought we really ought to have this service when it’s especially hard to get around when it gets colder," said Wessel.
While the truck will go on hiatus sometime in January, the team will continue to pop-up in community centers and neighborhood branch libraries all winter. The idea is to keep the momentum going for their mission, which is a curious one for three city employees: get fewer people to visit City Hall.
"City Hall is a great building. There’s a lot of wonderful people that work there," said Wessel. "But it really makes me cringe when someone talks about how inconvenienced they were. We want to be the happy, friendly one-stop shop where people can learn in their neighborhood about what’s going on."
And at least from what I heard from folks here on one blustery afternoon, they're nailing it.
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