Sound and fury: The 2003 Consumer 'awards'

Some embattled business owners and readers made 2003 a noisy year for this column, so herewith, three prizes:

Business owner most in need of customer-service training

 Stumped? Here's a hint: I seem to command a certain respect among tow-truck drivers– unless they're working for Lethal. That's because I spent much of 2003 writing about Lethal's unique approach to customer service.

Most egregious was Lethal's pattern of demanding cash from some (but not all) AAA customers. Lethal has the AAA contract for Charlottesville, which stipulates that a member's car will be towed a certain number of miles free. But readers told me about three instances in which the driver had insisted on cash. I wrote about one incident last year (May 9, 2002) and the other two this year (June 5 and June 12).

In the June 5 incident, when neither the 19-year-old driver nor his parents could come up with $150 in cash in the middle of the night, the Lethal employee drove off with their car– even though the service call had come through AAA.

I'd spoken several times with Randy Green, director of public relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who claimed that the organization was taking action to convince George Morris, Lethal's owner, to improve customer service.

When I called in late May to discuss the latest incident– a predawn car removal– the reaction was sterner. AAA Mid-Atlantic officials, Green told me soon afterward, were "in discussions" with Morris about whether they would continue their contract with him, and that may have gotten his attention. In any case, Lethal still has the contract for AAA in Charlottesville, and I haven't heard any more reports about members being charged cash for covered services.

Since the award is for "Business Owner Most in Need of Customer-Service Training," however, and not "Biggest Repeat Offender," let me say this: Morris and his office manager, Donielle Messner, may want to bone up on their people skills. Messner routinely threatened me with legal action for writing about Lethal, while Morris mainly avoided me, preferring instead to have Messner deliver such pronouncements as "Mr. Morris has nothing to say to you."

Actually, that might have been a good thing; Morris was charged with using obscene language on the telephone in Charlottesville General District Court in 2001. The charge was nol prossed– i.e., the prosecutor withdrew the case, with the option of reinstating it later– as was a charge of damage to private property in the same court in 2000. Not so with a charge of assault and battery in Albemarle General District Court in 1995; he was found guilty and given a suspended sentence of 90 days.

Most recently, Morris (doing business as Lethal) was sued in July by Bill Hedges in Charlottesville General District Court. Hedges claimed that his 1992 Mercedes had been damaged while being towed, and the judge concurred; Morris was ordered to pay Hedges $1,300 and court costs.

Remember, AAA members: When you call for service, you can specify that you don't want Lethal. Remember, too, that AAA isn't the only auto club around.


Most likely to inspire letters to the editor

My reporting on Bright Beginnings evoked strong reader response, both positive and negative: One column and one short article resulted in five letters, two penned by supporters and two by detractors. (The fifth, which discussed the difficulties facing state childcare facilities due to changes in state laws in the mid-90s, we'll consider neutral.)

The column (June 26) described Heather Williams' experience at the Mill Creek branch of the center. Her daughter received "excellent care and nurturing"– but her son, Alex, had a total of 11 caretakers in 10 months. Williams claimed that there had been numerous licensing violations, and that she had discovered a letter from the state Department of Social Services (DSS) "hidden behind fliers and handouts" on a bulletin board, "even though bold print declared the letter must be posted in plain view of the parents."

That was no trivial oversight; the letter was announcing that the Mill Creek center had been placed on probation for a year. The reason: inadequate staffing– which also landed the Forest Lakes center on probation twice, in July 2001 and September 2002.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act request with DSS, which yielded 120-plus pages' worth of violation notices, inspection summaries, and certified letters, I learned that all four locations (Mill Creek, Forest Lakes, Earlysville and Crozet) had been cited repeatedly for licensing infractions– mainly for inadequate staffing, but also for such things as serving insufficient food to meet USDA requirements.

I tried several times to interview Kathe Petchel, Bright Beginnings' owner, but was unsuccessful. Instead, I received the following faxed statement: "We as a preschool implement and strive to achieve a high quality standard for families in our community. Throughout the past 18 years of serving children and their families, our continuing success is clear and speaks for itself."

Bright Beginnings parent and physician Ann Klecan wrote the next week (July 3) to praise the Mill Creek center, which her son had attended for two years. "The facility is a vast improvement over where he was for his first 10 months," she wrote.

I heard from plenty of current and former Bright Beginnings parents and employees, but almost all preferred to remain in the background. One correspondent told me about the situation covered in my October 9 article, which reported that Bright Beginnings had allowed an employee to remain on the staff after she had been convicted in Greene County General District Court of assault and battery.

Assault and battery is one of the so-called "barrier crimes" that, according to state law, bar a person from working in a child-care facility in any capacity. In this case, Bright Beginnings transferred the employee from her job as a teacher to a new job as admissions director– but that was still a violation of the law. Ultimately, the woman quit.

In the October 23 issue, Mark and Michelle Conner– who said that the employee in question had been "a wonderful influence" on their son– theorized that "if the Dave Matthews Band were somehow involved with Bright Beginnings, all your stories about them would be glowing."

"Quite frankly," they wrote, "you remind us of the class bully."

Lori Mendez wasn't buying it. Her letter (October 30) took strong exception to the Conners and their theory. "Do the Conners condone this woman and her personal behavior? Sounds to me as if [the Bright Beginnings employee] is the bully– not The Hook."

Another week, another letter: Jessiah Mansfield (November 6) wrote to say that her daughter had gone through "at least six different teachers" at Bright Beginnings and "would be starving" when Mansfield picked her up "after only four hours."

"As for the [Conners'] letter," she wrote in conclusion, "I say, 'bully on.' There are many of us right behind you wishing that it would be shut down."

Sharpen your pencils, Hookers: In early 2004 I'll be reporting on Bright Beginnings' violations of yet another set of state laws, this time the ones that govern payment of wages and overtime.


Wackiest response by a business owner

Bob Weitzner, owner of Northern Exposure, won this one in a walk.

In September 2002 I began researching a tipster's claim that an impressive endorsement for the restaurant might be a product of Weitzner's imagination. The ad in question, which ran for at least a year or so in local publications, included a rave review ("an outstanding experience") from, supposedly, the New York Times.

Over the next few months, I faxed Weitzner several times, asking him to furnish proof, but got nothing in reply. Not only did he fail to confirm the Times quote, but he added another, this time supposedly from the Toledo Blade ("a gem"). When I asked for proof of the Blade quote, he was similarly silent.

Shortly after I wrote about the questionable ads (January 16), I heard that Weitzner had posted my column in the front window at Northern Exposure. People asked me if I thought that Weitzner didn't get it– i.e., didn't understand that I was suggesting he was being deceitful– but I said that that didn't seem possible.

Weitzner didn't stop there, however; he also sent me a $25 restaurant gift certificate; I reluctantly returned it, putting journalistic ethics above my love of a free meal.

I wrote a second column about Weitzner (February 13), which chronicled local artist Eli Frantzen's experience after a driver plowed through the wall at the front of the restaurant on which Frantzen had painted a large mural. Even though the claims adjuster, after getting her estimate for the repair work, had told her that she would be receiving about $1,200 of the total settlement, Weitzner gave her only $500. She alleges that she had to "hound" him to get the rest.

Ira Doppelt's letter in support of Weitzner appeared the following week (February 20). It began, "I'm not sure what crime Bob Weitzner committed, but there must be a severe shortage of bad guys in Charlottesville for Bob to merit two columns by the Fearless Consumer."

Ira, stay tuned: Perhaps 2004 will bring me a bumper crop of bad guys, and the column will live up to your lofty standards. (If it doesn't, be sure to let me know.)

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.