Crushed rock foundation of Center Street. Source: Flickr - Internet Archive Book Images
Crushed rock foundation of Center Street Crushed rock foundation of Center Street. Source: Flickr - Internet Archive Book Images

Engineers have been working for cities since the beginning of civilization. Our best evidence of this are the remnants of dams and irrigation systems built before 2750 B.C. and water systems in Jerusalem dating back to 1000 B.C.

However, from what I can tell, the people who designed, built, and managed community infrastructure were not formally referred to as city engineers until the 1800s. Also, it seems the title and position was not normally based upon a specific standard or suggested job description. So even today, across the United States, we find a variety of ways in which a city engineer acquires his job and the duties he is expected to perform.

To better understand how the city engineer position is established in a community, I’ve summarized the more typical documents used by a local agency to define a city engineer’s post, duties, qualifications, and responsibilities.

City charters

  • According to Wikipedia, a city or municipal charter is “a legal document (charter) establishing a municipality such as a city or town.” Charters, which laid out legislation for the local entity, were usually established after the incorporation of the municipality. Many times, the city engineer was listed in the charter as one of the city officials. For example:

    Louisville, Ky. On March 3, 1870, the city's Charter Act established the office of city engineer at the beginning of Chapter 20: “There shall be a principal Engineer for said City, who shall have power to appoint as many assistants and other employees as may be authorized by ordinance for the efficient management and conduct of this department.”

    The next section indicates the city engineer would be an elected position. While this might seem surprising to us today, this is something I have found to be quite typical during the 1800s—with the only difference between cities being that sometimes the city engineer was elected through the same process as other city officials while other times he was elected by council vote. It appears that because of this selection process, many city engineers in the 1800s served for only a year or two at a time, often leaving the office only to return in several years for another term.

    The Louisville charter establishes staffing for the engineering department, provides rules by which staff will be selected, and describes the duties of the engineer that includes:

    Preserving records

  • Creating maps
  • Making reports to the council
  • Keeping books of accounts
  • Submitting bills for approval
  • Superintending and managing all contracts of the city for the improvement of public ways
  • Control and supervise all public works
  • Perform all surveying and engineering work ordered by the council
  • Extend lines of public ways
  • Supervise and control laying of gas/water/drain pipes
  • Issue permits for excavations and other improvements.

Monroe, La. A more modern example is the city charter for Monroe, La., which establishes the qualifications and duties of the city engineer in Section 4-07. The city engineer is an appointed city official, which is more typical of how city engineers are placed in their positions today.

City ordinances (municipal codes)

  • Some city engineer positions are created through ordinance, which is defined by the online edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a law set forth by a governmental authority; specifically: a municipal regulation.” A city engineer ordinance, which is approved by the elected officials of a community, normally creates the position and offers a description of duties and sometimes qualifications. In many cities, ordinances are compiled or “codified” into a municipal code that is adopted by the legislative body. So let's go through a typical ordinance.

    Franklin, Pa. The city engineer ordinance or code for the position begins with a description of the position: "The City Engineer shall have the superintendence, direction, and control of the engineering matters of the City, and no department, board, commission, authority, or committee of the City shall employ or retain any additional engineer, except with the previous consent of Council."

    Usually a city engineer ordinance also names a few specific duties the engineer is expected to perform. Franklin's ordinance includes:

    Creation and maintenance of a real estate registry showing ownership of land within the community

  • Numbering of houses
  • Approval of new lines or pipes laid within the city.

In Franklin’s case, the ordinance also lists cross-references to other legislation that might confer other duties or responsibilities upon the city engineer, such as the ordinance that names the city engineer as the person responsible for issuing permits for excavations. Cross-references are helpful but, unfortunately, not always provided. If there is no reference list, a person has to go throughout all city ordinances or the municipal code to find all of the duties and responsibilities assigned to the city engineer.

Finally, the ordinance might also list qualifications required for those seeking employment as a city engineer. Franklin’s ordinance establishes employment standards for the position, which in this city's case include a specific level of education, experience, licensing, and registration along with more general job-specific knowledge.

Policies and procedures

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Charles Brooks, city engineer of New Haven from 1870 to 1872. Source: Flickr - Internet Archive Book Images
Charles Brooks, city engineer of New Haven from 1870 to 1872 Charles Brooks, city engineer of New Haven from 1870 to 1872. Source: Flickr - Internet Archive Book Images
Many city charters and ordinances include language to allow the mayor or other administrative officials to assign additional tasks to the city engineer. This is probably because it would be very difficult to anticipate every need that could arise in a city. While some of these duties might be infrequent, the ones that come up regularly might end up being documented in formal or informal city policies or procedures. These can also change depending on the skills and knowledge of other city staff.

For example, in a few of the cities where I've worked, the city engineer and the engineering department staff were initially involved in implementing computer technology within the city. In my experience, this seemed to occur through an informal understanding or policy and procedure. These computer-related tasks continued as a responsibility of the city engineer until technology expanded to the point that a separate department dedicated to what we now refer to as “IT” was created.

Here's an example of a more formal policy and procedure document that assigns specific duties to the city engineer: City of San Bernardino, Calif., Street Lighting Policies and Procedures. Within this policy, the city engineer is listed as responsible for several specific tasks including oversight of the location of street lights, bonding of systems, and electric services in addition to the approval of plans and inspection of services, wiring, materials, testing, and conduit placement.

Job descriptions

  • Created by a city's human resources department, these documents typically state the official title, the department it is located within, the immediate supervisor, the pay range, and any employment exemptions. Often there are sections covering duties or functions, qualifications and knowledge required, tools required, physical demands, and work environment or conditions. You can find many of these job descriptions by performing a search for “city engineer job description” on the Internet.

    Let’s explore a typical job description:

    Murray City, Utah. (I included below just some of the information in this document to give an idea of what is typically listed. You can visit the link above for exact information.)

    Department/duties: The city engineer functions within the Public Services Department. Duties include:

    Supervising, hiring, training, and managing specific other job titles

  • Pursuing transportation funding
  • Developing a budget
  • Planning and supervising public works projects
  • Perform related duties as appropriate (allows city administration to assign other duties as needed).
Illustration from the Annual report of the City Engineer (1867). Source: Flickr - Internet Archive Book Images
Illustration from the Annual report of the City Engineer (1867) Illustration from the Annual report of the City Engineer (1867). Source: Flickr - Internet Archive Book Images

Qualifications: In summary, the city engineer in Murray must have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, four years of experience as a senior civil engineer or civil engineer II with at least three of those years spent in a supervisory position, or the equivalent of that education and experience. The city engineer must also be licensed in Utah as a professional engineer or be able to obtain their license within six months in addition to having a Utah driver’s license.

The city engineer must also have knowledge of civil engineering, drafting, construction, and several other job-specific skills and abilities.

Physical demands: Work is performed mostly in office settings. Some outdoor work is required. Hand-eye coordination is necessary.

Work environment: The employee occasionally works in outside weather conditions, near moving mechanical parts, in excavations or traffic, and is occasionally exposed to wet and/or humid conditions, fumes, or airborne particles, and toxic vibration.

Work is primarily performed in an office setting.