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The Norfolk leadership team is shown near the Rose Garden Bridge, a recent project completed by the Design Division for the Norfolk Botanical Garden. They are, from left, Donnie Tuck, management services administrator; Mike E. Schaefer, P.E., stormwater engineer; Walter B. Coley Jr., superintendent of waste management; John Deuel recycling coordinator; Sid Kitterman, P.E., city engineer (far back left); Alice M. Kelly, CPA, assistant director of public works; Larry Keefe, towing operations manager; Jack R. Saunders, III, L.S., city surveyor (far back right); Jim Checkovich, Streets engineer; Guzin Akan, PhD, city transportion engineer, Karen A. Colombo, manager of budget and accounting; John M. Keifer, P.E., director of public works (in front). Photo: Jay Paul/Black Star

According to the dictionary, perfection can be defined as “an instance of excellence.” In three public works departments across the country, we've captured these instances, and provide them to you as examples of how to build—and maintain—a near-perfect public works department.

These three stories have much in common: strong financial programs, dedicated constituent relations, high-tech systems in place. But the one thing that really stands out among PUBLIC WORKS magazine's 2005 Department of the Year winners is strong leadership. This leadership generally starts at the top and trickles down through the ranks to even the lowest man or woman on the totem pole.

“The one aspect of or person in a public works department that you can't live without would be an effective leader,” said Barbara J. Lucks, competition judge and materials recovery/education coordinator with public works in Springfield, Mo. “This ‘piece of the puzzle' will enable the other critical pieces to fall into place.”

John Keifer, public works director for Norfolk, Va.—honored as the 2005 Public Works Department of the Year—said that a key ingredient is a leader who can challenge and inspire employees. “I believe that many organizational structures can work, so long as the public works director and the senior leaders are committed to working together,” he said.

Encouraging and rewarding teamwork and a positive attitude is also an invaluable asset to any department. “A good attitude is essential to training a person and for getting the job done—and done correctly,” said Shawn Lindsey, competition judge and public works director in Athens, Tenn.

Tim Madhanagopal, another judge and plant manager of the water reclamation division in Orange County, Fla., agrees. “Dedicated and talented staff—they really make the difference in any organization,” he said.

“The public sector is a great place to work,” said Susan E. Vance, director of the Butler County Department of Environmental Services (BCDES), this year's Department of the Year Section winner. “As such, the public sector should command premier employees.”

The Next Step

So you've tackled the people problem. You've got the most talented and dedicated staff in place. What else can you do to merit an award from PUBLIC WORKS magazine next year?

Pam Broviak, competition judge and city engineer/public works director for LaSalle, III., said that capital equipment is on the top of her list. “Adequate equipment that is inspected, maintained, and replaced on a regular basis” is key to a successful program. Managing these assets, whether through a dedicated GASB 34 compliance program or through a specialized asset management program, also are key. These data, preferably in electronic format, should be readily available to all employees within the department.

“You must have the ability to keep good equipment with equipment replacement schedules, a well-run fleet maintenance program, and thorough inspections,” said Lindsey. This continuous monitoring of equipment and other assets will help ease the burden of capital spending in the long run.