We were mad as hell and taking no prisoners. Twenty-some residents of La Grange, Ill., a Chicago suburb of 16,000 residents, gathered in the village hall's basement and fired questions at village leaders.
The issue? The village had erected a parking deck on what had been a surface lot in its growing business district, home also to condominium buildings that lack parking. We condo residents thought we'd be able to use the new garage, but the village was stonewalling. Raising tensions further, the village was considering selling yet another lot to condominium developers.
Three alternative parking plans had been presented, and we were arguing their pros and cons. Allow overnight street parking for the first time in village history? Create parking spaces on both sides of the street, or just one side? Who would qualify for a space? And why couldn't we just park in the garage? After all, it had added nearly 200 spaces to the downtown area, and the village generated revenue from our parking decals.
As we gyrated through two hours of the typical village meeting, getting more confused over the same questions asked and answered multiple times, public works director Ken Watkins sat patiently listening, arms crossed and a thoughtful expression on his face. A 30-year veteran who started out in water maintenance, he was mentally ticking off options for snow removal and street cleaning and signage and all the other issues that overnight street parking would present.
The new garage had already forced him to do some creative line-item juggling to pay for additional maintenance labor. He solved that challenge by contracting out the village's monthly brush pick-up program instead of replacing its ancient tub grinder.
By the time the village manager asked how the various parking proposals would affect Watkins' job, no one much cared what he had to say.
Isn't that the way it always goes? You are a professional whose calling raises the value of our life's greatest investment—our property—by making our communities desirable places to live. And until the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, you and your employees weren't even considered critical components of disaster-response teams.
As a 20-year publishing professional who prides herself on going the extra mile, I cannot tell you how much I respect the men and women who get this often dirty, highly technical, politically challenging work done.
As the PUBLIC WORKS editorial team works to make this century-old magazine an even better resource, we invite your suggestions. What do you want more coverage of? Of what accomplishment are you particularly proud? (In Watkins' case, a school has never shut down because the water was out.) Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 630-705-2594.
Don't be shy: PUBLIC WORKS is your place to shine.