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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

Mitch Zamojc, P.E.: Commissioner of public works The Regional Municipality of Peel, Ontario

Mitch Zamojc gives most of the credit for success to his team. “You can't win the Stanley Cup with one player,” he said. “I will say to anybody that it's the best group of people, the most dedicated, the most passionate, helpful team possible. You can't win [APWA Top 10] without it, you really can't.” Zamojc has been commissioner for the rapidly growing Region of Peel in Ontario for the past 25 years.

During high school, Zamojc realized that he wanted to pursue a technical career. After earning an engineering degree, he worked two or three jobs before entering the municipal field. Although his technical training helped prepare him for his position, people skills and building strong teams have been the most beneficial factors.

One of the Region of Peel's main goals is to divert 70% of its solid waste away from landfills by 2016. There are multiple phases to accomplish this. An organics plant with greater capacity is needed to handle kitchen wastes. “Residents need opportunities to divert and to deal with their waste if we want them to divert,” said Zamojc. The current three-bag limit on garbage will be reduced to two bags. Anything beyond that must be tagged and paid for.

Large facilities are being constructed for waste management in the Region of Peel. These include single stream recycling, organics processing, and transfer stations. Large trunk sewers are being tunneled.

The Region of Peel's population increases by about 30,000 people each year. A master plan is in place, along with infrastructure plans to accommodate growth. Expansion is one of the biggest issues affecting waste collection, wastewater treatment, roads, and traffic.

Zamojc has found public works to be a rewarding field. “You can achieve a lot of personal satisfaction because you can begin projects, finish projects, and see tangible evidence of them,” he said. “If you're in a public works profession or engineering profession you essentially touch everything. Everywhere you look there is some aspect of engineering.”

On being selected for APWA's Top 10 Leaders of 2005, Zamojc said, “I'm humbled by it. I've met many people over the years, at APWA conferences and so on, and there are many very, very good leaders. To be in that group is a humbling experience.”

William P. Baxter, P.E.: Public works director Orange County Public Works, Orlando, Fla.

Bill Baxter stands at the helm of one of the biggest public works agencies in Florida, with an operational budget of $70 million and a capital improvement budget of nearly S200 million. In addition to his role as public works director, Baxter serves as county engineer. Understandably, his myriad duties keep him busy, usually away from his office. “For the past couple of weeks, I've hardly seen him for more than 20 seconds at a time,” said Ralyne West-enhofer. Baxter's executive assistant.

In addition to juggling an insane schedule, Baxter's significant challenges include tangling with the infrastructure of a bustling, swiftly growing area. “We live in a community of 1 million people impacted by 500,000 visitors weekly,” said Baxter. ‘The challenge of growth makes Orange County a unique area. It has placed a burden on our infrastructure that is difficult to match.”

One solution: building public-private partnerships to facilitate much-needed infrastructure improvements. For example, for road construction projects, Baxter encourages developers to provide the required right of way and construction plans, while the county funds the construction itself. This innovative approach enables his agency to build many more miles of roads than would be possible otherwise.

“By combining our resources, we have been able to be successful,” said Baxter. When Baxter joined the agency in 1982, Orange County had 300 miles of unpaved, maintained roads. Today, all of those roads are paved.

Baxter finds time to be an active citizen outside of his work as public works director. He has served as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts of America, garnering the District Award of Merit for his contributions. He also gives time to his church, working on the parish school board and, as a member of the church building committee, overseeing construction of a new $1 million facility.

Cheryl F. Creson: Municipal Services Agency administrator Sacramento County, Calif.

You might be surprised to find a registered nurse in public works, but looking at Cheryl Creson's list of duties and achievements, it's not such a big stretch. As head of Sacramento County's Municipal Services Agency (MSA), one of her primary responsibilities is protecting her community's health.

After graduating from nursing school, Creson decided an additional degree would help her career. She ended up obtaining bachelors and masters degrees in civil engineering, spent two years working for Malcolm Pirnie in New York City, then six years with Montgomery Watson in Walnut Creek, Calif. From there, she entered public service, working for California's Central Contra Costa Sanitation District, then the Sacramento County Water Quality Department. When the director of county engineering retired, she took his place, and she was promoted to director of public works in 2003.

In March 2004, Creson was appointed administrator of the newly formed MSA, which aims to combine public works, community development, and neighborhood assistance efforts to provide optimal service to urbanized, unincorporated areas in the face of expansion.

“The change was made to reflect what is occurring in the county today; growth is rapid and developed areas are incorporating,” said Creson. “Urbanized unincorporated areas are requesting services similar to those of a city.”

In addition to several fast-growing communities, the county also hosts the state capital. Creson “s agency brings together a range of bodies, including water quality, solid waste, water supply, transportation, and air quality groups. The agency is undergoing a two-year review process to gauge its effectiveness and public satisfaction. While bringing such diverse factions together has been challenging, Creson said she has learned much from the process.

“Working with the two cultures (planners and engineers) has been fun,” she said. “I have grown to understand and appreciate the longer term and creative planning process in contrast to some of the linear, more time-constrained engineering thought processes.”

Since entering public works in the 1980s, Creson has learned a great deal about what it takes to be a successful public works professional. “Interpersonal, writing, and presentation skills are among the most respected skills for a public works manager,” said Creson. “Your technical solution may be the right solution, but you need to convince others that it is the right solution. You also need patience and flexibility in your approach to work.”

And as demanding as life as a public works leader can be, Creson said, it has its rewards. “Satisfaction can come from the technical challenge of developing an engineering solution to a problem, but additional gratification comes from working with a team to achieve buy-in from interested parties and negotiating agreement to reflect the buy-in,” said Creson.

Leslie P. Bland: Director of public works City of Fenton, Mich.

Leslie Bland got into the public works field at the ground level—literally. An experienced backhoe and grader operator, he answered an ad for a skilled laborer position with Fenton, Mich., in 1969 and was hired. He rose through the ranks and has served as director of public works since 1979.

During his tenure, Bland has implemented improvements to the city and his department. “My proudest accomplishments would be the building of our new Department of Public Works garage and our new water treatment facility, which opened within the last two years,” said Bland. “Both these buildings were badly needed and now are state-of-the-art.”

Another contribution is the city's capital improvement program (CIP), which Bland put forth during his early days as director. The plan annually allocates a minimum of $200,000 to construct and maintain Fenton's 40 miles of local streets. The CIP established the first year of the plan's projects for implementation in the next fiscal year and laid out four more years of proposed projects for the council to review. The program helped increased his department's efficiency, improved quality of life, and helped keep the peace in the city.

Bland shows a great deal of pride in the municipality he has served for more than three decades. “We have lots of areas around us with many lakes and attractions for our residents and we are no more than half an hour from several large cities,” he said. “Our school system is very good. We have approximately 170 acres of park area—one having a beach with lifeguards—and our housing is second to none at a very-affordable cost. Most people say we are a small town with big-city attractions.”

And while Fenton might not be a big metropolis like nearby Detroit, that doesn't mean Bland's job doesn't present big challenges. “Each day brings in new problems to deal with, along with construction, maintenance, and overseeing all aspects of the water system, sewer system, roads, and parks. Days go by very quickly and problems seem to never end. I like a challenge and this type of work fits me just fine.”