Engineering as a tool for city management
Running any successful city or county has always required the efforts of two disparate types of people — those with a technical bent and those whose talents are best suited to managing things. Those two types rarely broke bread. The technical people were content to live out their lives in the grime and the heat building libraries and making sure the sewer lines did not leak. The managers did the real dirty work — campaigning for office.
But at some point, the technical people decided there was no reason they should not be the managerial people, too. They had the education, they knew the nuts-and-bolts issues, and more and more, they were developing the kinds of “people skills” that would vault them into new roles as public servants.
It is a quiet revolution. Operating mostly out of the spotlight, experienced engineers are offering their vision, innovative ideas, problem-solving expertise and consensus-building skills to shape policy, manage budgets, repair crumbling infrastructure and help communities plan for brighter futures.
As elected or appointed officials, they are joining local politicians, lawyers, developers and community and business leaders at the tables where agendas are set and decisions made. Once regarded by the public as “the invisible profession,” engineers are slowly taking the lead, making their voices heard and calling the shots about what public works project gets built and where.
In communities across the country, civic-minded engineers are serving as mayors and city council members and on local planning and school boards, where the technical expertise that makes them so focused is often a refreshing change of pace.
In Anchorage, Alaska, Assemblyman Bob Bell thought he was too busy with his civil engineering practice to serve in public office. But he had what he figured were legitimate complaints about the way his city was being run. When they were not addressed, he decided he had no choice.
After one unsuccessful campaign, Bell ousted the Anchorage Assembly chair, an attorney, in 1991, with a campaign theme that emphasized, “Lawyers are trained to keep things from happening; engineers are trained to make things happen.”
The Anchorage Assembly makes laws and authorizes spending for a borough-type government representing 250,000 citizens and, thus, has more clout than a traditional city council or city-manager. Yet, because many assembly-controlled functions — such as public works — are engineer-oriented, Bell’s technical training comes into play regularly.
“Often, other assembly members look to me for expertise and advice,” he says. “There are not many left-brain types like engineers in politics. Because engineers are rational and practical, we tend to balance the political arena. Our left-brain training helps us better analyze and solve problems.”
Bell, a former president of the Consulting Engineers Council of Alaska, devotes 20 hours to 25 hours a week to assembly work while running his civil engineering practice, F. Robt. Bell & Associates.
It is a life that requires a delicate balancing act. “You learn to regulate your life, manage your time and set priorities.” For example, Bell always finds time to take his wife out to dinner every Friday evening and spend Saturdays with his children.
A VISION THING
Often, their technical expertise gives engineers a more educated glimpse of the future than non-engineers can manage.
For example, Ken Nelson, a civil and transportation engineer with Chicago-based Clark Dietz, has brought much-needed technical expertise to the Glencoe (Ill.) Planning Commission in its efforts to develop a 20-year comprehensive growth plan.
In helping develop the plan, Nelson taps into his transportation knowledge to make independent decisions on roads and other public works projects.
He is a firm believer that it is high time engineers became involved in public service, which he calls, “an area dominated too long by lawyers and others who lack our technical knowledge.
“Our communities need leaders who understand technical issues,” he says. Nelson, who had previously served on a half-dozen local boards, got involved in public service 11 years ago when his village fired an engineer who had designed a retaining wall that prompted complaints by a local leader. That leader made the mistake of saying, “That’s all we can expect from a consultant,” so, in defense of his profession, Nelson volunteered to help the village find another engineer to build the wall.
Soon after, he was asked to serve on the planning commission. “Ever since offering to help, I’ve been involved in community life,” he says.
Their peculiar knowledge, Nelson believes, gives engineers a unique ability to affect community life.
“Engineers can make an impact on a community’s direction and take advantage of opportunities to reach out to people,” he says. “As engineers, we’re equipped to plan public projects, develop budgets and build consensus. [In the public arena] it is important to be able to persuade other decision makers, and engineers are respected by the public as independent, objective professionals with no hidden agendas. Many people are wary of lawyers and developers.”
Still, juggling community and professional lives can be daunting. “I spend all of my available time attending council meetings,” says Wauwatosa (Wis.) Alderman John Curtis, principal engineer for HNTB Corp.’s Milwaukee office. Curtis had previously served on a series of community boards, so impressing his colleagues that they urged him to take a shot at the city council.
The past president of the state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Curtis acknowledges his engineering background gave him an advantage during his initial and two subsequent runs for office, because the voters wanted a responsive leader who understood public works.
As chair of the council’s Traffic and Safety Committee, Curtis uses his engineering knowledge to help his municipality of 50,000 develop effective traffic solutions and “do more with less.”
But if the goal of doing more with less is important, it is also clear evidence that engineering and community service is a two-way street; not only is community service affected by engineering expertise, but a technical focus is sometimes softened by public service.
For instance, privatization, often a dirty word to the rank-and-file public works employee and engineer, gains the occasional convert when he or she is personally involved in dollars-and-cents budget talks.
In fact, in his presentation at the 1991 International Public Works Congress, Curtis described how Wauwatosa managed to cut costs and still provide excellent service by privatizing many services previously performed by city workers with city equipment.
Additionally, his engineering experience was an aid in presentations he made at the 1994 National Congress of the American Public Works Association.
NO ONE-SIDED GAIN
But if communities themselves benefit from the services of a public-spirited engineer, the gain is by no means one-sided. Having four engineers active in their communities has helped elevate the public image of Orchard, Hiltz & McCliment, a Livonia, Mich.-based engineering firm, according to firm Principal Dan Fredenhall.
Fredenhall doubles as a member of Livonia’s public works commission. Other active firm members include Principal David Mariner, who sits on the Farmington Building Board of Review; Associate Al McComb, a member of the Ann Arbor Building Board of Review; and Project Manager Leo Davies, who serves on the Cohoctah Township Planning Commission in Livingston County.
“Our firm encourages community participation,” Fredenhall says. “Serving on local boards helps us understand better what they are looking for.”
Public service also helps engineers professionally, enabling them to network and make more contacts. “And, it makes me feel better as a citizen to be involved in the community where I live and work,” he says. “My service on the Livonia sewer board was a perfect match, because they were looking for someone young with a technical bent.”
Still, it is not only the technical areas of public service that benefit from the presence of engineers. In fact, public service often begins at the school board level.
Concern about his children’s education and the opportunity to push a bond issue for construction of a middle school prompted Bob Payer to run for Storm Lake, Iowa’s, school board.
“As consulting engineers, we frequently go before local boards and commissions and see the need for citizen involvement,” says Payer, a consulting engineer and principal/treasurer of Storm Lake-based Kuehl & Payer, who has served as president of his community’s school board for the past five years. “If we don’t do it, no one will.”
A MANAGEMENT TOOL
Despite a long history of being perceived as just that, however, managing and engineering are not mutually exclusive functions. Wausau, Wis., Mayor John Hess emphasizes that the experience and education involved in being an engineer lend themselves to good city management. “Being mayor is no different than being city engineer,” says Hess, who has been both. “It still involves solving problems, only at a higher level.”
Hess, a civil and environmental engineer who was elected in 1992 after serving as city engineer and as a member of the Marathon County Board, draws on his professional expertise to balance the city’s $30 million annual budget just as he did with the city’s $4 million to $5 million public works budget when he was city engineer.
Additionally, Hess says, being an engineer helps him understand and manage tough issues like labor union negotiations, insurance certificates and bonds, as well as the brick and mortar issues.
Also, according to Hess, it is easier for him to set priorities and control the city’s destiny without relying overmuch on outside experts.
That does not mean, however, that Hess is only comfortable with the nuts-and-bolts issues.
For example, during recent discussions with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington, D.C., Hess was able to capitalize on his knowledge of HUD policies and practices to iron out agency concerns and get a block grant for his city of 38,000 people.
ENCOURAGING THE EFFORT
However, while a growing number of engineers nationwide are sticking their toes in the public service waters, there is still much to be done in the way of encouragement. To that end, the American Consulting Engineers Council (ACEC) is establishing four blue-ribbon panels to study the “Four I’s,” imagination, involvement, information and impact. The latter is designed to encourage engineering professionals to participate in the world outside engineering — to climb the leadership ladder from local communities to the state houses and the U.S. Congress — and to spur the next generation of engineers to be tomorrow’s leaders.
For more information on the panels, contact ACEC at 1015 Fifteenth St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005-2605; phone: (202) 347-7474.