I spent last Monday with New Orleans public works director Robert Mendoza, who delivered what must have been the most complete, short-term lesson possible on managing public expectations.
A New Orleans native whose parents left Honduras when he was 3, Mendoza watched his doctor-father treat children at local clinics during the day and private patients at night to build his own practice. The father's round-the-clock work ethic rubbed off on the son, who receives less than 1% of the city's budget to restore the 300-year-old city's streets, traffic signs and traffic signals, and catch basins after Hurricane Katrina halved the city's population in 2005.
Mendoza hadn't heard that Kirkwood, Mo., public works director Ken Yost had been killed just three days earlier, when resident Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton opened fire at a city council meeting. Though Yost wasn't the gunman's target, like everyone else in that meeting he represented an unfair and unjust government that had been bedeviling Thornton, an independent contractor who'd just lost a lawsuit against the city, for years. (Thornton was shot and killed at the scene by police officers.)
Except for sharing a PE designation, Mendoza and Yost are as variable in age and background as two men can be.
Yost spent his entire career in the public sector, serving Kirkwood for more than 35 years. Mendoza left a lucrative position with a local contractor to give back to his home city.
But their experiences throw into sharp relief the predicament of all Public Works readers: valuable and vital, yet unseen and unappreciated.
Mendoza doesn't expect anyone to recognize, much less thank him for, the evenings and weekends he gives up to move the city forward. Similarly, that city council meeting was one of thousands Yost attended throughout his career.
Like Mendoza and Yost, you routinely give up free time with no compensation except the satisfaction of knowing you're doing the right thing. That level of humility is necessary if for anyone who wants to make it in this profession.
Editor in Chief, PUBLIC WORKS Magazine,