In like Flinn
As the largest grape-growing region in the United States, San Joaquin County, Calif., produces the most wine in the country, with 960,000 acres of grapes, 30 wineries and 130 labels to its name. Another highly productive part of this California county is someone that works for the community, helping secure traffic signals and building bridges — his job is Director of Public Works, and his name is Thomas Flinn.
In a world where most folks only look out for themselves, Flinn seems to do the opposite. He has been described as warm and approachable and a mentor to others. Flinn is a person who values his employees — this year, he used his own money to purchase enameled logo pins for each of the almost 400 employees in his department during National Public Works Week and personally thanked each one for their contributions.
Colleagues also say he knows the right thing to do and will fight for it. Take, for instance, the way he convinced a small community — Lodi — to let him trade the harder-to-get federal transportation dollars and give them his Measure K funds (money from a half-cent sales tax, established and implemented for transportation purposes up to year 2011). “He will already have a federal project going, and he knows that relieving the smaller jurisdiction of having to earn the federal dollars is a better deal for a town like Lodi,” says Julia Greene, executive director, for the San Joaquin Council of Governments. Because of his work, Lodi has begun building a much-needed road project and did not have to “earn” the federal dollars to do it.
Thomas Flinn not only sees the big picture in San Joaquin County, but he works hard to make others see it, too. Even after two hip replacement surgeries in the last two years, Flinn still managed to personally drive board members around the county to convince them of the work he felt needed to be done. A competent and caring manager, a strong negotiator and a man with an eye on the future are only some of the ways to describe Thomas Flinn, American City & County’s Public Works Director of the Year.
Easing the way
For the last 17 years, Flinn has been an integral part of the San Joaquin County Public Works Department, first as deputy director and then as director beginning in 2001. With 18 divisions, the department’s budgets total approximately $76 million. Before working in San Joaquin County, he was assistant director of public works in Marin County, Calif., for six years, where his responsibilities included storm damage restoration after three federal disaster declarations and developing enhanced transportation programs.
His experience came in handy this year with a transportation problem he addressed that eased traffic east of Stockton, Calif. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad built an intermodal facility on Jack Tone Road, which is a major commuter road into Stockton. As many as 25 trains per day traveled to and from the BNSF facility, stopping traffic as the trains crossed the road. “We had to make it easier for people to get around the trains that come and go through there all day long,” Flinn says.
To accomplish that goal, he and his staff held public meetings and built an over crossing in about 18 months. The $7.3 million grade separation project involved constructing a bridge to carry vehicle traffic over the BNSF Railroad tracks and Littlejohn Creek, allowing vehicles to travel unimpeded along Jack Tone Road, the longest road in the county.
Highly involved in the design concept for the project, Flinn was given the task by County Administration and the Board of Supervisors to secure a portion of the funding to build the facility from the railroad. Working with State Senator Michael Machado’s office, Flinn successfully negotiated the funding, convincing BNSF to raise its level of financial participation by presenting the shared benefits of building an over crossing to it. In the end, the railroad agreed and contributed $1.5 million toward the project. The state chipped in $5 million, and approximately $850,000 came from San Joaquin County’s Measure K funds.
Bob Brendza, Director of Facility Development for BNSF, says that Flinn worked closely with him throughout the development of the intermodal facility near Stockton on a number of issues. He says Flinn played a key role on the grade separation project that ultimately resulted in significant safety improvements for the community. “His willingness to find solutions made him a valuable asset to the development team on that project,” Brendza says.
Because the over crossing is in an agricultural community, some farmers and residents were not initially happy with the changes planned along the road. Flinn met extensively with landowners so that eminent domain proceedings could be avoided and to gain support for the project.
Jack Sieglock, a county board supervisor, says that Flinn has come up against all kinds of challenges, but he tries to keep an open mind about solving problems. “He likes to show board members what’s going on,” Sieglock says. “A couple of times a year, he’ll drive board members around the county, just to show them the problems, to help everyone figure out how he can help fix them by working with him as public works director.”
Out in the trenches
When Flinn is not lobbying board members to support new projects, he is out in the trenches with department employees. Annette Borges, director of the Solid Waste Department, says that Flinn keeps his hand on the pulse of the people who work at both of the county’s solid waste facilities. “He’s genuine,” she says. “He goes out to both facilities and attends the breakfasts that the employees actually make themselves and wants them to ask questions at these meetings. He’s just that kind of person.” She adds that, in the end, his goal is simply to have everyone work together toward the common good of the community.
“I try to get out and meet the people,” Flinn says. “Most of these people are the nuts and bolts — without knowing and understanding them, you can’t build the future.”
Borges does not pull any punches when dealing with problems, and neither does Flinn, she says. He can be very straight forward and gets a lot done that way. He does not always expect people to agree with him, but he will always listen to what others have to say, Borges says. Soon, she and Flinn are going to the board with a consulting agreement for landfills and a landfill gas system, and they recently met to review why she made certain decisions and why she chose the project consultant. “When a decision has to be made, he’s good about questioning you,” Borges says. “But he’s also good at backing you up once you’ve made your decision.”
San Joaquin County is also making history, being one of the first in the state to build a household hazardous waste consolidation facility that properly disposes of hazardous waste that residents could too easily just throw away. Flinn was a driving force in the project, garnering the board of supervisors’ support to build a facility that would serve not only the unincorporated county, but all the other jurisdictions in San Joaquin County. Flinn and his team calculated the proposed growth for the next 30 years, making sure that the facility the county built was substantial enough not to be outgrown. The Central County Household Hazardous Waste Facility opened in August 2003 and serves eight jurisdictions. It also is the culmination of a regional planning process spanning 10 years and is paid for by residents’ taxes.
A specialty hauler used to collect hazardous materials from households door to door, but it was less costly for people to bring it to one facility themselves, Flinn says. “Most folks want to do the right thing, when given a chance, to protect the environment,” he says. “It opens up a whole new window when everyone involved wants a clean environment.”
Of the $1.6 million in project costs, $900,000 of the construction was paid for with grant funds. The 5,300-square-foot facility was designed to offer all residents household hazardous waste services at an assessed cost of $4 per household, and it includes a storage room for material that the community can reuse, saving disposal costs.
Michael Callahan, senior civil engineer and head of the Engineering Division, says Flinn stays closely involved with all public works projects. “He drives by to see how projects are going. That says a lot about him,” Callahan says. Flinn is hands-on but does not micromanage, and he is always looking for new ideas to solve problems, Callahan adds. “He’s open, communicative and willing to listen, even when your opinions differ,” Callahan says. “That takes a certain kind of person.”
Division head and senior engineer for traffic engineering in San Joaquin County, Tom Okamoto, says Flinn is very insightful on the macroscopic transportation issues in his county — one of the fastest-growing in California. “He is sensitive to overall traffic-related activities and challenges, as we coordinate with the county’s many municipal agencies,” Okamoto says.
Sending a signal
Using that ability, last year, Flinn coordinated the efforts of several agencies for the installation of the first traffic light in the town of Lockeford. “The need for a traffic signal came about because of the demand on the corridor and the impact on the community for safety and access across State Route 88,” says County Administrator Manual Lopez.
Originally founded as a stopping point for wagons heading into the foothills to supply mining camps, Lockeford developed along old wagon trails. As traffic increased on Route 88, the main road through town, the small agricultural community found itself divided. People had to figure out clever ways to get across the highway, for example, by driving a half-mile outside of town to catch the highway to make a left-hand turn. That was particularly dangerous in the valley, where the fog season can reduce vision to 25 feet.
Installing that traffic signal required a collaborative effort between the county, the California Department of Transportation, Lockeford and the San Joaquin Council of Governments and gave the community a sense of safety. “Lockeford is one the most historical communities in the entire county,” Flinn says. “It is also a major access area that basically lies on a state highway, and residents had a hard time getting into and out of their own town.”
Flinn’s work with Sieglock, and other involved partners — Caltrans and the Lockeford community — made it easier for people to simply cross the street. The improved safety and traffic operations have turned out to be key benefits for the rural town and the travelers that use the busy state corridor.
Flinn is not all work and no play, though. He and his wife, Sykes-Andell, live on an 18-acre farm out in the country. Their two sons and three grandchildren help to occupy his time away from the office, and his dog, a Jack Russell terrier named “Flash,” who also serves as the department’s unofficial mascot, keeps him busy. “It’s a full house when everyone is home,” he says.
The Flinns love to travel and take in the California landscape, especially in Yosemite, one of his favorite destinations. But, he says there’s something else he likes even better: relaxing and working on his farm. “It’s nothing like where I grew up in San Francisco,” he says. “When I first came out here, I was looking for a place to live and work that was growing and would continue to grow, and I found it.”