Launch Slideshow

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Building legacies

Building legacies

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    Rick Merson has worked with Needham, Mass., for 35 years. Photo: Town of Needham, Department of Public Works

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    Mickey Sullivan started his career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is now regional vice president with Gresham, Smith & Partners. Photo: Gresham, Smith & Partners

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    Doug Wesselschmidt is city engineer in Shawnee, Kan., where he has worked for the past 20 years. Photo: City of Shawnee

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    Brian Usher is public works director of rapidly growing Zion, Ill., where more than 600 homes are projected to be built over the next three years. Photo: City of Zion

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    Mitch Zamojc is commissioner of public works in the expanding Region of Peel, Ontario. The region plans to divert 70% of waste away from landfills by 2016. Photo: Region of Peel

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    Orange County public works director Bill Baxter, left, accepts his Top Ten award from APWA president-elect Bob Freudenthal. Photo: Orange County Public Works

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    Sacramento County, Calif., Municipal Services Agency administrator Cheryl Creson stands near one of the large pipeline jobs underway for the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District. Photo: Chris Andis

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    Piano public works director Jimmy Foster has brought lessons culled in his travels to 55 different countries back to his home city. Photo: Deborah Stone

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    Leslie Bland, director of public works for the city of Fenton, Mich., installed a capital improvement plan to upgrade his town's roads. Photo:APWA Reporter

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    Las Vegas public works director Richard Goecke has seen exponential growth in his 20-year tenure. Photo:APWA Reporter

Doug Wesselschmidt: City engineer: City of Shawnee, Kan.

The only time Doug Wesselschmidt thought about going into a field other than engineering was during a college calculus test. “I was thinking, ‘What kind of a profession can I go into that does not involve calculus?' Fortunately, I made it through that test and many others after that,” he said.

Wesselschmidt entered the public works field during college, when he spent three summers working for the city of Lee's Summit, Mo. After graduating from University of Missouri, Rolla, with a civil engineering degree, Wesselschmidt worked for the Missouri highway department for two years. A position then opened in Shawnee in the public works department, where he has been since.

Incorporated in 1856, Shawnee is one of the oldest cities in the state and also one of the fastest growing. The city has to maintain an infrastructure that goes back, in some cases, more than 100 years. Shawnee's population of about 52, 000 increases by around 2000 people each year. Many new subdivisions are going in and approximately 600 new single-family building permits are issued annually. In addition, commercial, industrial, and office development is thriving.

Wesselschmidt is part of a technical review committee that works with 19 other cities in Johnson County to make policies and distribute public works funds. Two of the joint efforts are a county road program and a stormwater program. “There's good cooperation between the cities to make best use of that money to do drainage projects that may cross city boundaries as well as creating a county-wide street network,” said Wesselschmidt.

In the 20 years since Wesselschmidt joined Shawnee, the city has made progress on street improvement and drainage improvement projects. Through hard work, the small staff has been able to implement these and other capital improvements.

“The way I've always looked at [public works] is that it is most like being in a service organization,” said Weselschmidt. “It's a rewarding position. It's very satisfying knowing that at the end of the day your work usually helped out either an individual or a group of individuals.”

Brian Usher: Director of public works and engineering City of Zion, Ill.

In the ever-expanding Chicago region, Zion, Ill., is the last open space on Lake Michigan's north shore before reaching Wisconsin, but the town is expanding rapidly. Brian Usher has spent the past five years as Zion's public works director striving to control and accommodate the rapid growth.

Usher never intended to go into public works. “It just kind of happened,” he said. As a teenager and during college, Usher worked at a park district to earn some extra money. With a college background in criminal justice, Usher could not find a full-time police or fire job. He accepted a position with the Itasca, Ill., public works department as a maintenance laborer and decided to stay in the field. He held increasingly responsible positions as street superintendent in Glendale Heights and maintenance superintendent in Arlington Heights.

Usher moved on to Zion in 2000 to help manage the impact of the population boom. Zion established a pre-development team representing public works, community development, building and zoning, and the fire department.

The team meets regularly to discuss proposed developments in town. Its principal role is to help guide the community's development efforts and it meets with every developer wishing to build in the city. The “one-stop” process allows the city to provide coordinated information to the developer/builder. This has reduced the time spent by developers on follow-up questions and the time city staff spends on plan reviews and construction inspection. Additionally, the team advises the city council on other issues impacting development opportunities in the city.

“We are revising the city's comprehensive plan, which reflects the changing demographics and interests of the community as a whole,” said Usher. The plan identifies future land uses the city wishes to implement. The pending revisions would address increased emphasis on commercial and industrial development, institutional zoning, and clearer zoning classification.

Despite a population of 25,000, Zion has not lost its small-town atmosphere. Much of the population can still trace family roots back to the original founders of Zion in 1901. “It is very enjoyable to work here because the community buys into things and really is supportive of attempts to keep the community moving forward,” said Usher.

The largest issue today is money and funding, said Usher. He tries to work in a participative style of management and supervision. “I am painfully aware that I don't have all the answers, but I feel that one of my strengths is that I have a good sense of where to find the answers or who to go to find them,” said Usher.