Bill Palmer, editor in chief of PUBLIC WORKS magazine (center), presented John Keifer (right) and the Norfolk staff with the Department of the Year award in October. Photo: Jay Paul/Black Star
Norfolk, Va., situated on the waterfront, has a population of about 235,000. Photo: City of Norfolk

A city founded in 1682 might seem an unlikely candidate for most progressive public works department in the United States, but after reviewing characteristics such as innovative approaches, staff qualifications, training opportunities, and fiscal control, PUBLIC WORKS' choice for our first Department of the Year is Norfolk, Va.

A completely built-out city of 66 square miles and 234,000 residents, Norfolk (pronounced by locals as naw-fuk) is “a city on the move, constantly reinventing itself,” according to their entry for Department of the Year. Public works director John Keifer, one of APWA's Top 10 Leaders in 2004, has surrounded himself with an outstanding team that includes assistant director and certified public accountant Alice Kelly— a skill that comes in handy when developing budgets that the city council can understand and support. The Norfolk Public Works Department has responsibility for streets and bridges, traffic control, towing, stormwater, and solid waste management, but not for water/wastewater operations, fleets, or public buildings.

Norfolk was selected by our judges, not for one or two outstanding programs, but rather for overall competence and excellence. In the end, the most important criteria was the impression that this city is one that other cities of all sizes and locales could emulate in order to reach their highest potential. Here are a few of the things we found exceptional:

Personnel—Norfolk's diverse work force reflects the city's population—60% of workers are African-American and their standard operating procedure requires diverse panels be used in selecting new employees. Opportunities for advancement are available in part through the Keifer-initiated Leadership Development Program. Each of the five levels in the program have 10 sessions covering all the topics needed to move into a leadership position, including vision and values, motivating people, problem solving, time management, presentation and interviewing skills, and safe operations. Norfolk also has formed a partnership with other regional departments for a maintenance training academy to teach such skills as chain saw operation, traffic management, and sidewalk repair.

ROW management—The city's right of way fee structure provides incentives and penalties that encourage contractors to minimize the impact street closures have on traffic, safety, and local businesses. By replacing a flat rate fee, the city has seen greatly increased communications from contractors and has reduced unnecessary closures.

Traffic operations center—Norfolk's Smart Traffic Center (STC) actively operates its 284 traffic signals using closed circuit TV (CCTV) and the Norfolk Traffic Channel. Timing on signals can be adjusted from the STC in real time, and changeable message signs can warn motorists of problems to avoid. The Norfolk Traffic Channel, available through the local cable service, provides city residents with live views of freeways and major intersections. Channel 46 also provides information on accidents, road closures, and upcoming events. Norfolk's Emergency Operations Center also makes use of the CCTV to assist accident responders and provide them with the best route to the incident scene.

Towing cars and carts—Norfolk is the only public works department in Virginia that operates its own towing service. Towed cars are bar coded, allowing complete control of the inventory. Another unique program operated by the towing division jointly with the stormwater division is collection throughout the city of shopping carts. Recovered carts are returned to their owners for a $10 fee.

Big Easy—Each Norfolk residence is issued two 95 gallon plastic containers. The green one is for disposables, but the blue one, the Big Easy, is for a wide range of commingled recyclables. This program was initiated with an aggressive marketing campaign that included newspaper ads and a kickoff that was covered by local TV stations.

Lambert's Point Landfill—A closed 50-acre landfill near Old Dominion University was transformed by the public works department into a Scottish-style golf course (see cover photo). The facility, which opened in August 2005 to rave reviews, includes a clubhouse, a bi-level driving range, practice sand traps, and putting greens.

Budgeting—The city meets its budgets through detailed monthly operating budgets and variance reports from each division head. Each division is expected to continually improve performance and meet its target. The department's Design Division handles all capital improvements and works closely with the city council to refine the cost and scope of the ongoing projects list.

Norfolk, of course, still sees things they would like to improve—ways to increase efficiency, training, and safety. That's yet another example of why Norfolk is our Public Works Department for the Year for 2005.