It takes determination, originality, and professionalism to be a true leader. It also takes patience and humility. The American Public Works Association (APWA) acknowledges these qualities with its annual Top Ten Public Works Leaders program. This year's leaders measure up.
From working in 55 different countries to leading one town through 35 years of changes, these public works leaders display all of the qualities one looks for. Perhaps the most common trait among this year's 10 is that they serve the agenda of the common citizen, not elected or appointed officials. The following pages will introduce these leaders, their challenges, solutions, projects, and thoughts on the public works profession.
Needham, Mass., is redesigning the town business district to make it more pedestrian-friendly and safe. The roads will be narrowed to accommodate crosswalks and sidewalks and the town itself will be beautified. Ironically, when Rick Merson started 35 years ago, the town was expanding the roads to make it mote car-friendly. “Now it's reversing,” he said.
Merson has been with the department of public works for 35 years. He started his public works quest at Boston's Northeastern University, which specialized in cooperative education. Students would go to school while working, preferably in their field. Merson's first co-op assignment was at the Needham Department of Public Works in engineering.
Merson feels one of his best skills is keeping people motivated and directed. “I'm behind the scenes,” he said. “I just try to provide the means and the methods.”
Partway through college, Merson took a full-time job with Needham and completed his education taking night classes, which he feels were more beneficial than day classes. Although night classes had the same topics and professors as a day class, the students were “people who wanted to be there,” he said. “The professors taught people who wanted to learn.” Through this, Merson felt he got a more complete and meaningful education.
Merson also is active in the community. He is a member of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Massachusetts Clean Water Council, Boy Scouts of America, Rotary Club of Needham, and Needham Local Emergency Planning Committee.
For everyday dealings with colleagues or the public, Merson recommends acting with respect and dignity. “That gets you on a higher plane to begin with,” he said. When a problem arises, he advises empathizing with others. “This is a real person with real problems and real issues,” he said. “It may not be big to you at that moment, but it is big to them.”
In a world where “Ready, aim, fire” has become “Ready, fire, aim,” Mickey Sullivan directs his career in terms of aiming before firing. “Some people start firing before they get their aim down,” he said. “We try to make sure our aim is down before we squeeze the trigger. Make sure to have all the facts before you try to solve the problem and always start with the end in mind. Know where you're going before you get started.”
Sullivan started his public works career after college when lie joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he worked on several large projects. One was the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, which parallels the Mississippi River from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico. The waterway allows for a shorter route for barge traffic to move on the river system. “It was one of those things that private industry could not pay for themselves,” said Sullivan. “It would take the government to come in and do something like that.” Another large project was building Big South Fork, a 125, 000-acre national park in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.
After 15 years with the Corps and seven with Nashville's public works department, Sullivan took a job with Gresham, Smith & Partners, where he has been for the past 10 years. Sullivan's biggest current project is a brownfield project in downtown Nashville, where an old hospital site is being converted to mixed-use residential, retail, and office space. The city-owned site contains an abandoned hospital, an old rock quarry, and historic trolley barns that have served as Nashville's consolidated motor pool for decades. “We are rebuilding 40 acres of downtown Nashville, which is pretty exciting,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan served as the APWA president, Tennessee chapter, in 2004. Highlights included getting the state DOT to join APWA and getting the governor to declare an American Public Works Week in May.
“There's something special [about working in public works],” said Sullivan. “If there's anything I miss since I left government it's that firsthand, up-close, personal involvement with projects where you feel like you're making a difference for people's quality of life.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.”
When asked to talk about Plano, Jimmy Foster sounds like a proud parent. He lists the numerous quality-of-life awards the city of 245,000 people has received over the years, including recognition as an All-America City in 1994, one of America's best cities for women (by Ladies Home Journal), and best city of more than 100,000 in which to live west of the Mississippi (CNN Money). However, as Foster said, it isn't necessarily a bad thing for a public works director to crow.
“Public works needs to improve its public relations—communicate to the general public the high level of the product we furnish,” said Foster. “Public works, stereotypically, fails to ‘toot its own horn.' We furnish a good product, so let's tell others about it. If it's the truth, it's not bragging.”
Under Foster's leadership, Plano's Public Works Operations Division—through public outreach and education- built a water conservation program that has led to a significant decline in the city's per capita water usage. The program offers a number of water-saving tools, including low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators, toilet dams, and rain sensors for automatic sprinkler systems. In addition. Plano has an extensive public education program, with an array of seminars, classes, and hands-on training.
In all areas of public works, said Foster, it is important for agencies to listen to their constituents and respond. “Public works departments should monitor complaints and trends of complaints so that their vision of quality is not outdated or out of touch,” he said. “Time is a strong component of quality in the 21 st century. The timeliness of the service is just as important as the materials and workmanship of the visible product.” The city welcomes citizen input, holding regular roundtable meetings, and the publishing e-mail addresses and phone numbers of town officials. A work-order system maintains a history of contacts by address.
A world traveler. Foster has visited and worked in 55 countries. He served as director of a community development project in Burkina Faso, and as a humanitarian aid consultant in countries such as Yemen, Armenia, and Mongolia. During his travels and at home, Foster has learned the importance of meeting the present and future needs of diverse communities.
“Many cities in the United States are changing demographically,” he said. “The services we provide need to reflect the desires and needs of these demographic/ ethnic groups. Likewise, our communication needs to exhibit the styles with which these groups feel comfortable. How should that communication be structured? How should our services be offered? These will be some of the challenges of the future.”
Las Vegas is a city that never rests—and neither does Dick Goecke, the city's public works director for two decades. He oversees a workforce of 400 employees and commands an annual operating budget of more than $100 million. The challenge of piloting the public works department of such an active city is made even tougher by the fact that Las Vegas continually is transforming itself—new casinos, resorts, attractions, and residential developments pop up every day.
“The Las Vegas landscape constantly changes,” said Goecke. “When I came here in 1985, the city's population was 197,148. Today, Las Vegas proper has upwards of 559,824 residents, a 283% increase. For public works, this means focusing on funding, building, and maintaining the transportation infrastructure, wastewater management, flood control measures, fire stations, parks—all those things a community depends on. It has been exciting and rewarding to me, to be part of these efforts to develop the infrastructure to accommodate this unprecedented growth.”
Goecke has met the challenges facing his dynamic city with a variety of innovative solutions. For example, because the municipality is sited in the middle of the desert, water is a primary concern. He directed the development of a new water reclamation facility, and he led the charge to form a regional coalition of area agencies to address long-term wastewater issues.
“Accommodating growth as it relates to water and wastewater treatment is a top priority and, in light of southern Nevada's ongoing drought and water restrictions, water-related issues take on even more importance,” he said. “Since 1989, more than $200 million has been spent to expand our main treatment facility. Efforts have also focused on moving away from the practice of using drinking water for irrigation. In 1999, we put southern Nevada's first satellite water reuse facility into operation and a year later, a second, larger, reuse facility came online to provide reuse water to nearby golf courses.”
Goecke will soon have more time to enjoy those Vegas golf courses—he plans to retire later this year, enjoying a much-deserved break.