Judith Mueller was hired as the assistant to the director of public utilities in Virginia Beach, Va., in October 1977. She became that city’s assistant director of public works in January 1981 and was hired for her present position as director of public works in Charlottesville, Va., in September 1985. In that position, Mueller is responsible for the divisions of Facilities Management (municipal and schools), Capital Project Management, Parks, Golf, Traffic Engineering, Building Maintenance, Transit, Public Service (streets and sidewalks, refuse collection and fleet management), and the city’s water, wastewater and gas utilities, overseeing a departmental budget of $27 million. She is a member of the National Board of Directors for the American Public Works Association, a member of the Diversity Council of the Virginia chapter of the American Water Works Association, a member of the boards of directors for the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority and the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, and a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Stormwater Phase II Advisory Group. Mueller is a graduate of Cornell University and received her master’s in business administration from Old Dominion University.
Q: Not many women were working the public works field when you started. What attracted you to the field? A: I was working for Virginia Beach and finishing my master’s in business administration, and I was approached by the assistant city manager who said there was an opening in public utilities and might I be interested? I told him I had read the ad for the job, and they wanted an engineer. He told me the names of the people who had applied, and I thought, “I can do that job as well as they can.” So I had an interview with the department director and was hired the next day.
It was great because it was an opportunity to come into the field on the administrative side. And once I got involved in the operations side, I was hooked.
Public works is exciting compared to everything else in government. I never looked back. I was fortunate when the opening came up in Charlottesville because they were looking for a manager, not an engineer. Fourteen years ago, that was very unusual. Here, the public works department is very large and diverse. We handle water, sewer, gas utilities, building maintenance, parks and recreation, the bus system … . I do everything for the schools but teach.
Q: Traditionally, there has been tension between the administrative and operations sides of public works. As a manager, do you feel that? A: It hasn’t been a problem for me because I am very respectful of the city engineer’s office. I would never consider overruling their opinion. I have always deferred to them on technical matters. I think one of the problems has been that, historically, public works was an opportunity for engineers only, and engineers may have viewed managers coming in as cutting out possibilities for them. Personally, I find it advantageous not to have to get into the technical stuff. It gives me more time to manage. Our jobs are different now. We no longer sit around as city staff and decide things. Everything we do is out in public with the citizens.
Q: What is the status of women and minorities within the public works field? A: We’ve come a long way. The first time I went to a national congress, I took my husband with me to the exhibit hall, and everyone was talking to him, not me. It didn’t matter what color my tag was. Now, people are seeing that [qualification is not a matter of] gender or race. I was on a committee for APWA – it’s now called the Diversity Committee – and our goal was to work our way out of existence. That didn’t happen. If anything, we’re expanding. And it’s not just women and minorities; it’s young people. We are seeing far more women and minorities moving into leadership positions. Do we still have a long way to go? Yes.
Q: What are the most critical issues facing the field today? A: Without question, the condition of our infrastructure. Getting the dollars needed to repair the country’s infrastructure is critical. The backlog of maintenance is immense. Bridges are a huge issue. The Interstate system needs repair. We’re not going to turn that around in two or three years; it’s a long-term thing. Technology is another big concern – how do you keep up; how do you use technology to do your own job better; and how do you find that cutting edge technology for your workforce?
Q: Do you see any reluctance within the public works field to tap into all the new technologies? A: I think people are beginning to see the technology tools as a huge advantage. They have literally changed the way our jobs work. For instance, technology has changed the whole snow control function. Being able to have sensors in the roads that tell you when it’s about to freeze is an amazing thing.
Q: What big changes have you seen? A: In snow control, again, the chemicals we’re using are very different from the chemicals we used to use. We don’t put anything down now without a serious discussion about where it’s going and how it will affect the environment. Our citizens expect us to be stewards of the environment.
I live and work in a university community (Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia), so we may be a little ahead of some other communities in our environmental awareness. But public works in general is dealing with the issue better than we have in the past. I was visiting Oregon and was amazed at what some of the cities are doing to give meaning to the word “sustainability.” There are lessons for public works there. The pressure [to be environmentally sensitive] is only growing. It’s not going away.
Q: How important is it to maintain a good relationship with your elected officials? A: It is absolutely crucial to have the backing of the elected leaders. I pay close attention to them. We have a new council coming in next week, and, based on how they ran, I know what they’re going to want. We’re the doughnut hole in an urban area, and our leaders ran on alternative transportation issues. So I already know their priorities will be bikeways, greenways and enhancing our alternatives. So we’ll have to work on that.
Q: As president of APWA, what are your priorities? A: I kinda look at it as a ceremonial position. The real priorities are set by the board, which comes up with our strategic plan. I see my role as communicating that plan to the members. It sounds corny, but I’m supposed to be a cheerleader for the public works profession and an advocate for our priorities. One of the things our members told us is that we need more publicity for public works. My role will be going out and making people understand the very basic services we provide.
Q: One of the major problems confronting the profession is the hiring and retaining of qualified people. Can you address that? A: Lots and lots of my contemporaries in the public sector are leaving public life to go to the private sector. A lot of it is related to political pressure and the fact that citizens can be less than pleasant. If you take the attacks personally, it takes its toll. A lot of people are walking away and saying, “I’m burned out.” I don’t see it turning around. Citizens are never going to just go to the city engineer and say, “Just do what’s best.” We need to help our people adapt to a changing work environment. We need to help them deal with change.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you see in the coming years? A: The infrastructure challenge will remain. I like to think that the work of Rebuild America will continue to put major dollars into that. And the technology issues are not going away. We have to figure out how we harness the technology in a way that helps us provide better customer service. Everyone has e-mail now, so citizens don’t want to write a letter and wait 10 days for an answer. They want answers now. It’s incredible when I look at how we interact with our customers with never a piece of paper passing between us.