Getting the public in public works: Q&A with incoming APWA President Richard Ridings
Richard Ridings will take over as president of the American Public Works Association when it convenes its International Congress and Exposition on Sept. 9 in Philadelphia. Ridings began his public works career as a laborer with the Maryville, Tenn., water and wastewater utility and has served in a number of capacities in the public sector. He was structural engineer for Texarkana, Texas (later transportation division director in charge of street maintenance, traffic signals and solid waste). He was the city engineer in Farmers Branch, Texas; assistant director and eventually director of public works in Austin, Texas; assistant city manager in charge of public works in Oklahoma City, Okla.; and CEO of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, where he implemented Pike Pass, the first interstate high-speed toll collection system in the United States. Ridings, who has degrees in civil engineering and public administration, currently is a vice president for Kansas City, Mo.-based HNTB.
Q: You represent both the public and private sectors within APWA. But isn’t it unusual for the organization’s president to come from the private sector?
A: I think I’m the second person from the private sector, but it’s not that unusual anymore. So many people have worked in both the public and private sectors. I’m not sure I would have been as effective if I hadn’t spent 25 years in the public sector. I’ve been on the APWA Board of Directors since 1991, and I didn’t join the private sector until 1992.
Q: That brings up a point. One of the problems in public works nowadays is keeping qualified people in the public sector when private sector salaries are so much higher (see page 36). Having been in both, do you have any take on that?
A: I’m a strong believer that the brightest and the best people should be in government. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in this country, we are going to have to take a look at our basic education system and our reinforcement of that education and recognize that our teachers, policemen and public works people need to be the best and the brightest and that their pay should reflect that. Salaries need to be competitive. In my years in the public sector, pay was certainly important to me. I did everything I could to increase my pay. But there also are internal rewards in the public sector that aren’t available in the private sectors. There are offsets. It doesn’t necessarily have to be dollar value for dollar value, but the job value has to be equal.
Q: Your background also brings up another point. You have degrees in engineering and public administration, and for some time an argument has been simmering within the public works community about which is the better way to go. Can you address that?
A: I’m a licensed engineer, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for that profession. I would not dare think of putting an unlicensed person in charge of a design activity that required a professional. But I see no difficulty with having people with administrative or leadership backgrounds handle administrative or leadership issues. There is a role for everyone to play. The administrative side and the technical side need to expand their horizons; those on the technical side need more training in management, and those on the administrative side need to be more sensitive to the needs of the engineers.
Q: What will your priorities be as president of APWA?
A: We need to assist our public works members and their constituents in understanding the value of our nation’s infrastructure and the need to maintain it. The best way to do that is through expansion of our educational programs at the chapter levels. We have chapters in every state, and we have relationships with international associations in Australia and Mexico, so that’s a big network. Education and information are the key components in achieving our vision.
Q: How will GASB 34 affect those efforts?
A: GASB 34 is a tool that spreads our advocacy over many constituencies finance directors, city managers. They will all certainly become more educated about the value of their infrastructure assets. If you know what you have and what it will cost to take care of it, that’s a big part of the battle.
Q: What’s going on in Washington that the APWA is keeping its eye on?
A: We’re lobbying hard for the Water Infrastructure Network, trying to increase funding for water infrastructure. And we have our TEA-21 task force in place to begin preparing for the next highway bill. That’s a major issue.
Q: How successful do you think you will be on those issues?
A: I am the eternal optimist. I’ve been a member of APWA for over 31 years, and I’ve worked in seven communities. I have seen tremendous turnarounds. I’m extremely confident that, if we do our jobs and communicate effectively, we will be successful.
People respond if they understand the issues. We just completed a survey in Travis County [Texas] about transportation problems. Of those surveyed, the majority said they would approve significant bond finance programs even to the point of raising taxes if it would help solve their transportation problems. A lot of that is the result of education.
Q: Yes, but in terms of rebuilding the water infrastructure, do you think the fact that we are all relying on politicians who may not be in office when the project is complete will have any effect on the likelihood of its success?
A: We didn’t sugar-coat it. With WIN, we indicated that local dollars would have to be increased, as well as federal dollars. I think elected leaders understand the situation. Once we realize it’s not something for the individual, it’s for the future, political egos will fall out of the way.
I can’t imagine a mayor of any community who would not push for a tax increase to solve a serious problem simply because it would affect his political future. Those decisions should be left to the voters, and that’s where education comes in.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to get attention. But I think more and more people will be elected who understand the need to take immediate action on the nation’s underground infrastructure. It’s already happening on the transportation end.