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A city where officials go door to door asking how they can do better

When Edwin T. Powell first came to this suburban town as city manager, and there were still more orange trees than people, one of the the first things he did was get a haircut.

His barber, he soon found, had all sorts of wild misconceptions about the City Council members. He told Mr. Powell they had a fleet of helicopters and salaries of $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Mrs. Powell, who was at a beauty parlor next door, heard similar stories.

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So Mr. Powell decided this barbershop news network was worth tapping into. He invited the town's barbers and beauticians down to the fire station where he introduced them to city officials, explained exactly how the city worked, and tipped them off about coming projects, like street renovations.

Soon he got calls from barbers in nearby towns, he laughs, who also wanted to be made expert in city affairs.

This sprang Ed Powell and Placentia - about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles - into what has become a career of finding innovative ways of staying close to the townspeople. It has now inspired them to perhaps the most outgoing gesture a city government can make:

City Hall administrators are personally knocking on every door in this town of 36,000, and visiting every business, asking whoever is home for complaints and suggested improvements.

It is paying off in all kinds of ways, Placentia staff people say. Lee Sales, the personnel director running the project, insists that it could work in any size city that took it seriously.

Powell made his first real foray into face-to-face government here more than 10 years ago when Autonetics opened a big plant nearby that brought as many as 10,000 new residents into Placentia. With orange groves falling like dominoes and three or four major subdivisions at a time going up, it was a city of strangers in a new place.

So Powell, the police chief, and the fire chief - the latter two in full uniform - got maps with each new resident's name on it and went door to door welcoming people to town. It was just a friendly gesture but it was a hit.

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More recently, Powell was shopping at a local supermarket when he ran into a neighbor in the checkout line who alerted him to a neighborhood problem he hadn't heard of before.

Later, he wondered how he would have heard about it if he hadn't been at the supermarket at the right time. How many similar problems was he not hearing about through the usual channels?

''Don't guess what the needs are,'' Powell says now. ''Find out!''

So in August the roughly 25 top-ranking managers at City Hall began spending two to three hours a week going door to door, well, looking for trouble. They will be done around March.

With two-thirds of the houses and businesses canvassed by last week, 39 percent of the doorbells rung had been answered. At the rest, the callers left their business cards, a letter from Mr. Powell, and a brochure explaining how to contact city leaders.

In character the town is mostly upper-middle-class suburban, but the largely Hispanic southern section lends it some diversity. Its problems are not epic in proportion.

The visiting officials have logged 370 requests for specific services so far - most of them fairly easy to fulfill. They discovered a coyote problem they didn't know about and an ignored area without crosswalks for schoolchildren and beset by debris from dump-bound trucks.

The police are already shifting more patrols onto residential streets, in response to a widespread concern about speeding teen-age drivers.

And people are convinced that the street sweepers careen down their street at 40 miles per hour and don't accomplish anything.

''Most people,'' Powell notes, ''are just bowled over that we're there and wanting to know what they think.'' In fact, the police chief was so graciously received during his first sortie that it took him four hours to cover six houses; and he had to change his style.

The project is good for his staff, too, Powell says - preparing them for higher posts - when they get to hear the kind of public flak usually reserved for him and the City Council members.

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