Credit: Jay Walter

Construction of the Damon-Garcia Sports Fields in San Luis Obispo, Calif., took months of work with community sports groups, local officials, and environmental groups to get consensus on a location, determine its various uses, and clear a variety of regulatory and environmental hurdles.

Credit: Teresa Scott

Progress on the ambitious Depot Park brownfield project in Gainesville, Fla., has been helped by open communication among all the agencies involved, and with area officials and citizens.

Kappel also emphasized the importance of being open and honest with residents and officials, and providing them with complete information about public works matters, to establish and foster trust in the relationship. “They appreciate honesty, forthrightness, and clarity in the material you present to them,” he said. “They rely on us to give them the information they need to make wise, informed decisions.”

Jay Walter, public works director of San Luis Obispo, Calif., also said that building a relationship of mutual trust makes an appointed official's job a lot easier. “When you don't have to worry about the elected officials undermining or mistrusting you, a lot more can be accomplished,” he said. “I feel fortunate that we have a council that trusts the staff is doing a good job for the residents of our city, so they make resources available for us to continue doing that.”

Neil Dobler is director of public works for Topeka, Kan. During his 11-year tenure with the city, he has seen how working in a spirit of cooperation with local government can help ensure a project's success, as was the case with replacement of a deteriorating bridge across the Kansas River.

“The estimated cost was $40 million which, if funded by our normal capital improvement plan, would have eliminated all other projects for three or four years,” he said. The city council directed Dobler's department to create a sales tax initiative, working with the county and Chamber of Commerce. The efforts led to a county-wide referendum to finance the bridge and several major traffic ways. The department also worked with local leaders to secure $17 million in federal funding for the project.

The headaches public works leaders typically suffer from during a complex project also can be reduced by maintaining open dialogue with town officials and constituents as the job progresses. For example, Wauwatosa continues to keep citizens informed on the progress of the Hart Park project with frequent communications, including open meetings and updates on the city's Web site; sharing the news with the people the project affects has helped minimize grumbling.

Another example is the Depot Park project in Gainesville, Fla., a large-scale revamping of a federally designated brown-field. Formerly a train depot and yard downstream from a coal gasification facility, it is being transformed into a stormwater park with trails, gardens, and a skate-board park. Remediation alone is projected at $15 million. However, Gainesville director of public works Teresa Scott said that while the project has involved multiple governmental agencies and property owners, communicating openly with all parties involved about the project's progress and fiscal responsibility has helped kept the process flowing smoothly.


Not even the sleepiest of little bedroom communities is without its share of conflicts, and inevitably a public works director will find himself standing before a riled-up, red-faced official making a public display on one issue or another. The key to surviving these tussles, whether they involve matters small (i.e. placement of a stop sign) or large (funding a significant streets project), is to maintain grace under pressure.

On the rare occasions that Kappel is confronted with a bellowing alderman who's being less than kind to him, he never meets insults with insults. “You always want to show that person the respect due to that position,” he said—even if that person in the position is being less than respectful to you. Instead, he advised, listen politely and respond calmly, and save more animated discussion for at a later time, and a less-public setting.

It is important to maintain your cool in public, where constituents and reporters might bear witness to any outburst and come away with a lingering negative opinion of you and your staff.

“No one comes out looking good in a public yelling match,” said Kappel. If you find yourself at odds with the mayor or a council member, he advised, don't let their ire get to you. Instead, listen politely, answer calmly, and only take the gloves off behind closed doors.