When asked to talk about Plano, Jimmy Foster sounds like a proud parent. He lists the numerous quality-of-life awards the city of 245,000 people has received over the years, including recognition as an All-America City in 1994, one of America's best cities for women (by Ladies Home Journal), and best city of more than 100,000 in which to live west of the Mississippi (CNN Money). However, as Foster said, it isn't necessarily a bad thing for a public works director to crow.
“Public works needs to improve its public relations—communicate to the general public the high level of the product we furnish,” said Foster. “Public works, stereotypically, fails to ‘toot its own horn.' We furnish a good product, so let's tell others about it. If it's the truth, it's not bragging.”
Under Foster's leadership, Plano's Public Works Operations Division—through public outreach and education- built a water conservation program that has led to a significant decline in the city's per capita water usage. The program offers a number of water-saving tools, including low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators, toilet dams, and rain sensors for automatic sprinkler systems. In addition. Plano has an extensive public education program, with an array of seminars, classes, and hands-on training.
In all areas of public works, said Foster, it is important for agencies to listen to their constituents and respond. “Public works departments should monitor complaints and trends of complaints so that their vision of quality is not outdated or out of touch,” he said. “Time is a strong component of quality in the 21 st century. The timeliness of the service is just as important as the materials and workmanship of the visible product.” The city welcomes citizen input, holding regular roundtable meetings, and the publishing e-mail addresses and phone numbers of town officials. A work-order system maintains a history of contacts by address.
A world traveler. Foster has visited and worked in 55 countries. He served as director of a community development project in Burkina Faso, and as a humanitarian aid consultant in countries such as Yemen, Armenia, and Mongolia. During his travels and at home, Foster has learned the importance of meeting the present and future needs of diverse communities.
“Many cities in the United States are changing demographically,” he said. “The services we provide need to reflect the desires and needs of these demographic/ ethnic groups. Likewise, our communication needs to exhibit the styles with which these groups feel comfortable. How should that communication be structured? How should our services be offered? These will be some of the challenges of the future.”