David versus Goliath. Efficient versus ineffective. Weak versus strong. This is how many people may compare small towns to large cities. Small towns' public works departments have small staffs, less red tape, and fewer political problems while big cities have large bureaucracies, more money, and more professional staffs—right?

The nation's three largest cities (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, respectively) may have the biggest public works budgets and the most diverse departments, but this doesn't necessarily mean they are managed better. And cities so small that don't even show up on a typical map may have less paperwork to muddle through, but that doesn't necessarily make their public works departments efficient.

We wanted to find out what the differences really are, so the editors of PUBLIC WORKS talked to four cities—two large, two small. Here are their stories.

Oklahoma City
Public position, personal pride

Dennis Clowers, PE, has been on the job just a few months. Clowers, public works director of Oklahoma City (OKC), took over the job after 33 years in the private sector. He has taken the helm and tackled many jobs in his short time with OKC.

“The fiscal year 2005–2006 budget includes 428 authorized positions and includes seven different functional divisions: administration, traffic management, engineering, field services development center, street and drainage maintenance, and stormwater quality,” he said. His budget of slightly more than $63 million serves 506,000 people (2000 U.S. Census data).

Clowers switched from the private sector to the public arena for a host of reasons, one of which was selling his own firm at an opportune time. He also took the “opportunity to work with a great municipal staff, from the city manager on down,” he said. He took on the position as a personal opportunity to give back something to the community in a different way. “My father had worked in government throughout his career,” said Clowers. “He was also a civil engineer, but became the first planning director of Oklahoma City, and then the county engineer for Oklahoma County. I love Oklahoma City.”

His devotion to the city shines through in everything he does, including is his managerial style. “I feel that I deal with people well, trying to see all sides of any situation,” he said. “In my short time with the city, I have tried to allow my employees the freedom to do their job, to make decisions that they are capable of making—both of which I hope will allow for more productivity in our department. We have very capable, well-trained people here and they are a pleasure to work with.”

But how does his work ethic translate to large jobs, like the Walnut Avenue Bridge project? The project, which has cost the city more than $5 million already (well above the 1989 estimate of $2.1 million), will replace the bridge with a historically accurate structure that meets current design standards.

“In August 2004, the structure was inspected and rated below three tons,” said Laura Story, PE, the GO (general obligation) Bond program manager with OKC's department of public works. “The city had three options: rehabilitate the structure to over three tons, remove and replace the structure, or close the bridge.” The city opted to close the bridge, but then ran into some difficulty with Union Pacific Railroad, which was finally settled last month. “As of January the project is back under construction and anticipated to open in August 2006,” said Story.

This project, along with a host of other items, is on Clowers to-do list for the upcoming months. “The goals for the next six months would include delivering at least $60 million in GO Bond Issue projects this fiscal year, improving our service in our permitting area, and our street resurfacing and repair,” he said.

“Long-term, I hope to improve the way we do business for our citizens. We need to demonstrate to the citizens how good a job we are doing. We are preparing to enter a new program called Leading for Results, which will involve instituting new performance measures not only for public works, but for every department in the city. This will allow us to demonstrate to the citizens what they are getting for their tax dollars,” said Clowers. “We will also, in the next few months, be putting together a new general obligation bond issue for streets, drainage, traffic, parks, and other public improvements, to be submitted to the voters sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. The implementation of this new bond issue program will be something for the long term, 2008 to 2013.”

Clowers feels that with available personnel and equipment resources, the OKC public works department is able to make both non-emergency and emergency repairs to infrastructure in a timely manner. “We can also tackle some of the most complicated issues that may or may not be seen in smaller communities, who often use us for our expertise,” he said.

So how is OKC different from a small town? “I have provided engineering services for smaller cities in the Oklahoma City area, such as the cities of Yukon, Edmond, Warr Acres, and Norman. Actually, I don't find a great deal of difference. The staffs are smaller in the others, but you have to work with them just the same as with those in a larger city,” he said.

Oklahoma City fast facts
Population: 506,000
Area covered: 621 square miles
PW budget: $63.35 million
Web site: www.okc.gov/pw
Biggest hurdles: Funding, staffing, and consistency in delivering capital improvement plan projects
Services outsourced: Engineering/architecture, stormwater quality and water analysis testing, household hazardous waste disposal