The director of District's Office of Consumer Protection wants the little-known agency to become a model for the nation.
So far, however, many citizens have been unaware of the office and its work. But Herbert Simmons, the office's new director, says he's making a big push to bring his office an d its mission to the public's attention.
During the first step in that effort the designation of next week in the city as "Consumer Awareness Week," Simmons office will distribute 10,000 buttons reading, "I'm a Consumer, Treat Me Right."
In addition, Simmons said posters will be set up on 500 buses to provide consumers with tips about redress when they think they've been given a raw deal.
"When I came to this office, there was no secret that it had problems," Simmons said in a recent interview. "We have not solved all the problems, but we're on the way."
For example, Simmons said the office has cut its case backlog from 1,900 to 1,200 and has spruced up the office decor in an effort to enhance staff productivity.
"We have a responsibility here in the nation's capital to set trends," Simmons said. "I get tired of people saying that Montgomery County has a good office. We're a good office, too."
In fact, Simmons has a powerful statute to work with in trying to protect consumers from swindles large and small. "I want to see the office involved in big cases with big amounts," Simmon said.
Simmons' office can issue summonses, acquire materials through discovery and issue cases-and-desist orders to cut business malpractices. Those powers are new to Simmons, who for many years has been involved in the private consumer movement as the former director of the Neighborhood Consumer Information Center.
With a budget of $430,000 and a staff of about 28, Simmons does have the freedom to attack consumer difficulties. But he also sees the office as an important tool for educating the public.
"Consumer education has to be a priority," he noted, pointing to the holiday shopping season and stressing the importance of smart marketplace decision. "With inflation and the dollar being what they are, consumers have to maximize and conserve."
Simmons recommends that consumers know refund and credit policies before they buy, that they "beware of easy credit," that they plan their shopping and consider holding off on gift purchases until the first of the year to take advantage of post-Christmas bargains.
Consumer Awareness Week will feature a proclamation by Mayor Marion Barry, programs at schools and a variety of educational seminars.
"We're aiming to show consumer solidarity," Simmons said. "This is the peak of the shopping season and merchants need to be reminded that somebody is looking over their shoulder."
A 37-year-old native of Louisiana, Simmons had also been director of consumer education and resource management at the Howard University School of Human Ecology before joining city government.
He took over the office Aug. 6 and was confirmed recently by the D.C. City Council. Simmons has lived here for 12 years and maintains that he knows the community well.
"My particular experience with the local business community is that they're not gong to bend over backwards to work with the consumer movement," he said. "You've got to drive and push. Somehow business feels that consumers are out to get them and vice versa."
Although he pointed out that most large department stores, for example, have set up complaint centers, he says that the smaller stores and business in general in the District have not come as far as he might like in addressing consumer grievances.
"I don't see Washington as being outstanding," he said. "Ten years ago, exploitation was business as usual in this town.
"But now we have a more aware public that says 'you're going to treat me right.' Those are the fruits of the consumer rights movement and the business community is trying to police itself."