In Neighborhood Squabbles, She Rules
Montgomery Employee Handles All Manner Of Constituents' Gripes

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reina Pineda tried fighting the snakes with the weapons she had. A shovel. A machete. A weed whacker.

Now she's trying Alexis Reed.

There are 12,749 government employees in Montgomery County, and if you live in a broad swath east of Rockville and north of Silver Spring, Reed is the one you call for the constituent grunt work. Her boss, County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County), calls her the "social worker for District 4."

In a county of almost a million people and in a district where elegant homes and gang graffiti color the landscape, Reed is the bureaucratic prod who takes and makes the low-tech telephone calls that inch government forward.

Worried that your homeowners association's herbicide is killing frogs and making you itch? Call Reed. Concerned about cars from the newish subdivision zooming past the autistic boy who straightens up the trash cans? Call Reed. Are visitors slithering onto your property from overgrown bamboo on public land next door, as in Pineda's yard?

"I have called her lots, maybe 12 times or more. She's been very nice. It's not like the other people," said Pineda, a school bus driver who said her initial pleas went nowhere. "I told Alexis that my kids didn't even go outside this summer to play in the back yard because we were scared."

This is not where Reed expected to be. She left the district where she grew up for college in New York City and thought she was headed for a life in international human rights. Instead, 24 years after she was born at Montgomery General Hospital, she ended up back home.

"It's your neighborhood. It's your home; you should feel safe," Reed said. "You can't help everyone. But if you can help one person -- I'm sure that makes me sound like a hippie, but I'm fine with that."

In an office stocked with Golden Oreos, pretzel sticks and software for scoping out property lines, Reed has spent her first four months as a government official charting constituents' dramas. In the late afternoons, she moonlights as the varsity volleyball coach at Springbrook, her old high school, where at a recent game "the ref came up to me and asked me where the coach was," she said.

Squabbling constituents have no trouble seeing her as a referee, a role she tries to resist. Her refrain: Just talk to your neighbors.

It doesn't always work.

"A lot of it is aesthetics," she said.

Such as the complaints about a neighbor's front-yard corn crop. The complaining neighbor wanted anonymity. "He called and said, 'It's really ugly,' " she said. So Reed queried a code enforcement manager. His ruling: Advantage, corn grower. "It's legal," she reported back.

Checking on another complaint about a basketball "eyesore," she expected to see a raggedy, unused junk pile. But the hoop was just missing a net, its placement violated no rules and neighborhood kids enjoy it. "I want to see it myself, without any neighbor influence," she said.

When the problems are real, solutions can get murkier.

Workers have gone to Pineda's neighborhood to pare back the burgeoning bamboo jungle on state highway land that had been butting against her back fence. The family has gone after the rogue plant shoots and snakes that make their way into the yard, but Pineda said she expects both to come right back. She wants Reed to lobby for pine trees to replace the bamboo, but it's unclear how much will be done.

"If someone wanted to open a bamboo-removal company in Montgomery County, they'd make a killing," Reed said. "People can't do it on their own. It's just so time-consuming."

There are limits to what Reed can do.

At 9:07 on a recent night, a disheveled database manager named Raymond Monju rushed into a government meeting hall. Reed was closing up after a foreclosure-prevention session, and the other officials and counselors had cleared out.

"Was there a meeting here?" Monju asked, before grabbing a Diet Coke and describing the lows of the past nine months that had brought him to the edge of foreclosure.

He had finally started a new job four days earlier and was late because he was in training at Fort Belvoir. Still, he needed help. His lender was demanding two months of back mortgage payments, or about $4,000, which he didn't have.

"They don't listen. They just want their money," Monju said. He was thinking a car loan would tide him over, but Reed urged him to reconsider.

"That sounds like something the housing counselor can really help. I'd give them a chance," she said. But he wasn't interested.

Before he left, Reed pointed to a table full of leftover drinks.

"Take whatever you'd like," she said.

"Take whatever I'd like? Do you have a bag?" Monju asked, grabbing eight more sodas and a case of bottled spring water.

"A lot of people come to us when they are at their weakest moment," Reed said. "They don't know where to turn."

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