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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

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.