A severe snowstorm buried Milwaukee on New Year's Eve of 1984. Eleven inches of the white stuff plummeted in a single day, and while crews speedily cleared main roads, side streets were clogged, and hundreds of abandoned and illegally parked cars worsened the city's headache.
Meanwhile, a different kind of storm raged—against Milwaukee's sanitation superintendent, Bill Kappel. Such a severe weather event would have knocked even the best-prepared public works department for a loop, but one angered Milwaukee alderman openly—and loudly—pointed the blame at Kappel for what he perceived as the agency's less-than-adequate response to the blizzard. Kappel got an earful for something that was essentially Mother Nature's fault.
Elected officials can drive you crazy. Aldermen, mayors, commissioners—they all want to get their two cents in on how your public works department should operate. However, there are ways to work in harmony with them and keep the hollering to a minimum. Here's how you can juggle dealings with these outside parties and still keep your show running smoothly.
BIG VERSUS SMALL
Kappel has seen a lot in his career, from both the big-city and small-town perspectives. He has spent more than three decades serving the people of Wisconsin, going back and forth from Milwaukee-where he started his career in 1974 after receiving his masters in public administration—to Wauwatosa (a suburb of 47,271 people just west of the larger city), where he has served as director of public works since 2000.
In his experience, leading a public works agency in a smaller municipality is more manageable than in a bigger city—for a number of reasons. “The political situation [in Wauwatosa] is 180 degrees from what I was used to in Milwaukee,” said Kappel. “There, if you were getting called down to the mayor's office, you didn't know if you would have a job the next day.”
He also said the bureaucratic red tape was thicker in the larger city; a typical project there took a month to move through the approval process, whereas in Wauwatosa, a similar matter takes half that time.
Kappel also enjoys a good working relationship with Wauwatosa mayor Theresa Estness (see cover photo). He first met her in 1990 when she was an alderman on the city's solid waste commission and he was public works superintendent. He describes their relationship as a close, professional partnership. “She's a pleasure to work with,” he said. “She often stops by to say hello or calls if she needs something, as opposed to ordering me into her office.”
In addition, Kappel said Wauwatosa's public works staff has an inherent healthy work ethic he appreciates, and he shares a good rapport with his various department heads.
“Bill has an excellent working relationship with our mayor, the city administrator, and his staff,” said Randy Michelz, Wauwatosa's traffic and electrical supervisor. “I have found Bill to be very fair, respectful, and trusting with his supervisory staff, which allows me to do my job without feeling micro-managed. He sets a pace that motivates others.”
A GRAIN OF SALT
Sometimes a project can seem to drag on forever, but patience, perseverance, and communication can get the job done. For example, a salt dome might seem like a simple enough structure, but for Wauwatosa, getting one installed in the public works yard was a little more complicated than you might expect. According to Kappel, the pointy little building he proudly shows off on tours of his yard didn't come easily.