It's hard to pinpoint one “greatest” achievement with 30 years of service under your belt. But Christine Andersen says that adding a public information position in the 1980s was a significant move that impacted Eugene, Ore.'s Public Works Department for years to come.

Though such positions in public service departments are fairly common today, hers was a forward-thinking—and unheard of—decision for that decade.

“I knew that communications was a gap that needed to be filled,” says Andersen. “If the community doesn't understand the value of services provided, the community can't support those services.”

About a year into Andersen's tenure as director, the department undertook an extensive sewer line project that affected 20,000 residents—and required finessed communications between the department and the public. She hired a public information officer for the project, and used the project's success to make the case to city officials for a permanent position.

With the communications position in place, the department was able to educate constituents about public works services and projects through engaging methods, i.e.:

  • The annual report, once laden with charts, graphs, and numbers, was redesigned for readability and understandability.
  • The department hosted events inviting the public to visit the yard, learn about public works jobs, and even operate equipment. “That was pretty cutting-edge back in those days,” Andersen says.

Developing internal communications increased awareness of what was going on inside the department, and external communications helped generate community support. In the case of one environmental project, says Andersen, “it helped turn the concept of wetlands from ‘swampland' to ‘valued land' in residents' eyes.”

Engaging the community also helped the department build volunteer programs and inform residents about recycling and conservation.

“We worked more effectively with the community because we were building communication methods into the start of each project,” says Andersen. “If we couldn't tell our story, we'd lose opportunities to show why we needed support and funding.”

What Andersen did 20 years ago is now routine for many departments. “We've pretty much turned that corner in most agencies. It's exciting to see.”

Public works runs in Ron Calkins' blood.

His father Myron—named Top Ten Leader in 1973—was Kansas City, Mo.'s public works director for 22 years; and his twin brother, Don, is assistant general manager of public utilities in Anaheim, Calif.

And after serving as Ventura's city engineer for seven years, Ron began walking in his father's footsteps when he became director of public works. That was 15 years ago.

Since then, Calkins has spearheaded a community beautification project and coordinated a citywide green initiative that decreased energy use by 25% within two years. He also created an employee recognition program and drought-proofed Ventura's water supply.

Last year alone, he:

  • Installed a photovoltaic system that generates just 40% of the maintenance yard's electricity
  • Converted 100 vehicles and other fleet equipment to biodiesel
  • Adopted green building standards for construction projects
  • Installed one of the West Coast's first solar-powered trash compactors
  • Increased the city's solid waste diversion rate to 70%, one of the highest in the state
  • Launched a fuel conservation plan
  • Reduced pesticide use in city parks by 31%
  • Completed construction of a water-treatment plant that provides 10-mgd advanced surface water treatment.

Since the mid-1980s, the Missouri City Public Works Department had operated under a top-down decision-making approach that prevented front-line employees from resolving issues while in the field. Instead, citizen requests were taken back to the front office to wait in queues for the public works director to review.