Michael Walford: Putting big ideas to work
As Director of Public Works for Contra Costa County, Calif., Michael Walford has done all the things he’s been expected to do – build roads and bridges, perform maintenance and meet with county supervisors. But when he opened a day care center for children of county workers, he took everyone in the county, himself included, by surprise.
Day care centers and public works departments would seem to have about as much in common as Barbie dolls and steel girders. That would explain Walford’s initial reluctance to undertake the project, which was suggested by a public works employee in 1995. “When the employee first brought it to me, I thought, ‘This isn’t what public works is all about,'” he says.
Many public works employees, including Walford’s own assistant, were persuasive, and ultimately Walford became an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. He reviewed employee needs, checked out local child care facilities and picked a site – a modular building right on the Public Works campus. Then, to avoid administrative red tape, Walford and his team (now a Board of Directors) formed a nonprofit, private corporation and secured a $90,000 grant for the renovation costs. Many public works employees, including Walford, pitched in to help with the construction. The facility is licensed for 29 children. “Mike took a lot of flak for that center from some other employees because they said it was a waste of money,” says Deputy Public Works Director Cliff Hansen. “He took the flak because he knew it was good for the employees.”
“The people who were the critics now are showing it off and lining up to take credit,” says Val Alexeeff, director of policy and administration for Contra Costa County. The project that sets Walford apart was a day care center, but it could just as easily have been an employee movie theater. No idea is beneath Walford’s consideration. “He’s always willing to sit down and discuss any idea, no matter how outrageous it may seem,” Alexeeff says. “And he’s willing to try things that haven’t been tried before.”
Those qualities have made Walford, the county’s Public Works Director since 1980, one of the county’s most liked and respected administrators. They also have made him American City & County’s 1999 County Leader of the Year. It is the first time a public works director has earned the honor.
Follow the leader Innovation is part of Walford’s daily routine. During his tenure, he has implemented a flexible work schedule for his employees, developed funding programs for road and transportation improvements, developed growth management practices and instilled leadership qualities in his staff.
He can pursue innovative ideas partly because he believes in their likelihood for success. “Confidence is his greatest strength,” Alexeeff says. “He’s willing to take risks with projects. Someone with less confidence would be less interested in innovation or risk.” Additionally, Walford has a great deal of confidence in his staff. “He is an individual who values his employees and believes that they can accomplish anything,” says County Administrator Phil Batchelor.
It is partly that belief in his staff that led him to institute flexible work hours in the public works department. The impetus for the plan was an economic crunch during the nationwide recession, which forced the county to make some cutbacks to avoid layoffs and other losses. Walford suggested moving to a flexible schedule, which was tested in the public works department.
Based on its success, the plan was extended to all county offices. Now, all county employees have the option of working either four 10-hour days per week or working on a 9/80 schedule, which means that they work nine-hour days over a two-week period and receive every other Friday off. The county offices are closed to external business on Fridays, but employees who need to come in can do so.
By keeping its offices open for only four days a week, the county saves nearly a whole day’s worth of energy and custodial costs, a figure that amounts to about $70,000 a year. (The plan also complies with the trip reduction mandate of the California Air Quality program.)
Walford does do a lot for his employees, but he expects a lot in return, according to Hansen. Public works employees, particularly deputies, are expected to handle their share of responsibility and take on leadership roles. “I really enjoy the authority and responsibility I am given,” Hansen says.
“It’s not uncommon at all for people further down in the department to have meetings with supervisors, or to talk with them on the phone instead of funneling everything through the director like some departments do,” Walford explains. “I’ve got about a dozen people running around like little public works directors.”
Walford usually takes several staff members to county Board of Supervisors meetings, encouraging them to make presentations and giving them the authority to make decisions. “His executive management style is well known to the board. He’s got a very capable staff,” Batchelor says.
In addition to attending regular board meetings, Walford and staff members meet individually once a month with each supervisor to discuss current projects, agendas and concerns. “When we first set up [the meeting schedule], I was hoping to get half-hour meetings, and now some of them extend beyond two hours,” Walford says. “[The supervisors] are very interested, and it works great for us, working one on one with them. “I rarely have any problems with people making really bad decisions,” Walford says. “I try to make everybody comfortable with the concept that it’s okay to make mistakes. If you don’t make a mistake, you’re never going to do anything very exciting. You’ve got to make people try new things.”
He may even be shaping his employees to be leaders who can continue in his absence. (Walford might retire next year.) It won’t be hard to find a potential candidate, but it will be difficult to fill Walford’s shoes, according to Alexeeff. “Somebody will have to grow into his position,” he says. “No one can maintain the stature that Mike has.”
To encourage his employees, Walford has instituted a self-assessment program for the public works department. He got the idea when the American Public Works Association, Kansas City, Mo., published its “Public Works Management Practices Manual” last year. He decided to compare Contra Costa to the 400-plus practices listed.
“Other people would let sleeping dogs lie,” Alexeeff says. “Mike wants to know what his strengths and weaknesses are.”
Walford says the department is about 60 percent in-line with the Best Practices and is lacking mainly because many of its procedures are not documented. Once the corrections have been made, Walford will request APWA accreditation. (The voluntary accreditation process formally recognizes public works agencies for compliance with the practices listed in the manual.)
“Most managers would shy away from that kind of scrutiny because they don’t want to compete with the Best Practices,” Batchelor notes. But Walford says he is not concerned about the criticism and has enjoyed the assessment process. “Now we have a national standard to measure ourselves against,” he says.
Funding a way While operations inside Contra Costa County’s public works department are running in tip-top shape, it was not long ago that the department struggled to keep its head above water. When California’s Proposition 13 passed in 1978, general fund revenues from property taxes were cut by 60 percent. Public Works felt the brunt of those cuts as funds for flood control, and road construction and maintenance were slashed.
To avoid layoffs and establish a new revenue stream, Walford initiated a program, under which developers in high-growth areas developed the land surrounding their new properties. For example, a home builder would be required to expand the roads leading into and out of the housing community. In 1979, the program was formalized when the county passed legislation that established road fee areas (RFAs), whereby developers pay a fee for road work, drainage and other mitigation efforts.
In 1988, the Board of Supervisors extended the program by applying the road fee across all areas of the unincorporated parts of the county. Like most counties, Contra Costa also charges a fee with every building permit.
While the RFAs and building permit fees provide a continual source of income for the county and ensure adequate funding to extend roads and other services to its far reaches, they also help curb urban sprawl. “No matter where you build, you pay a fee for development of roads,” Walford says. “The fees can get awfully high. We have one part of the county where they’re about $10,000 per home, which is huge. The least is around $1,700. There are also drainage area fees.”
Growth has been a concern in Contra Costa for many years, and it is expected to become an even bigger problem in the near future. According to the San Francisco-based Association of Bay Area Governments, Contra Costa County and nearby Alameda County are expected to grow by 360,000 people in the next 20 years.
As technology companies and workers outgrow Silicon Valley, many are moving to areas with lower costs of living. Contra Costa fits the bill, with median home prices of $230,000, according to the 1998 County Index, compared with $500,000 home prices in parts of the traditional valley.
Traffic also has prompted companies and workers to move to other parts of the state, including Contra Costa County. In anticipation of that growth, in 1986, Walford and other county leaders formed a team to work on growth management. The team proposed a one-half percent sales tax referendum for a county-wide capital improvement plan for transportation purposes that included a growth-management element.
According to the referendum, each city and the county is required to establish minimum levels of service for roads, drainage, fire and police. For example, the county may not approve any new development that would cause a reduction in the number of police officers available to residents. If county supervisors do approve a development request that will alter the numbers, they are required to compensate by hiring more police officers.
In 1988, voters approved the sales tax with the growth-management element. That measure provides about $900 million for transportation projects through approximately 2008. Contra Costa was the first county to pass such a measure, and the California State Legislature later used the plan as a model for its State Congestion Management Plan.
Big business As another means of raising revenue, Public Works frequently bids on city and county projects. After Proposition 13 passed, Public Works protected its employees by reclaiming many jobs that previously had been farmed out to the private sector and by going after contracts elsewhere.
“One of our goals is to market our services to others,” Walford explains. “As we get annexations and incorporations, we shrink, unless we start doing business for these cities and others.” For example, starting this month, Contra Costa will provide public works services and staff to newly incorporated Oakley.
In contract competitions against the private sector, Walford’s department frequently wins. “We work very hard to compete on a fair basis withthe private sector,” he says. “The board is very concerned that we don’t use our public status as an advantage, but we do have an advantage because we’re not profit-making. We don’t have to add profit into the equation.”
Providing services locally and in nearby communities has helped the Public Works Department maintain its reputation for innovation. However, despite Walford’s success in establishing funding, providing services for his employees and developing leaders in his department, there are always improvements to be made, he says. “If you’re good, it’s because you’re always trying to be better.”