What does Congress mean to you?

Editor's Note: "What does Congress mean to you?" is the question I asked four APWA members from California, Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky. Understandably, their responses included the benefits they derive from attending the education sessions and from touring the exhibit floor. But their responses also included much more. In all four instances, my interviewees were quite pleased to discuss Congress, and their enthusiasm for the annual event was obvious. Here's what they had to say.

Brenda G. Cary
Assistant Director of Public Works
City of Hays, Kansas

Congress is extremely important to me, and I'm going to give you a little story so you'll understand my passion for it.

I've worked in public works since 1985. At that time I was an administrative secretary in the public works department for the City of Wichita Falls, Texas. My boss, of course, was the Director of Public Works and he was a member of APWA. At one point during my tenure there of five years I realized that I didn't want to live on a secretary's salary forever. So this wonderful man, who was a part of APWA and certainly has been a mentor to me, encouraged me to go to college. I had no college credit, but I decided to do it.

Somewhere along the path, I knew without a doubt that APWA was an investment in my future. And in 1995, while I was a secretary, I used my own vacation time and paid my own way to go to Congress in Dallas. I began to build a network of people, and I knew somehow that getting my education and networking with people in APWA would help me in the future. I didn't know how, I didn't know when, I just knew it was going to happen.

As it turned out, in 1996, I looked at the APWA Reporter, and in your classified section there was a job description for the position I now hold: Assistant Director of Public Works in Hays, Kansas. I read it, thought I had the prerequisites for it, and applied for and actually got that job. And it was through the Texas Chapter of APWA that I had networks who actually turned out to be references for me to get this job. When I came to Kansas, it was people from APWA in the Kansas Chapter who actually contacted me to ask if I would serve. That had never happened to me, where I had a position through public works that opened doors that certainly were not open to me before.

So to me, going to Congress is incredibly important, not only for the educational aspect of it, which is tremendous, but also for the networking. Through APWA and the different task forces and committees that I've been allowed to serve on, I have a vast network of people all across the country, and this simply would not have been possible had it not been for APWA connected with Congress.

The networking at Congress is just incredible. I've learned a tremendous amount about public works issues simply sitting at a lunch table or waiting in line. This is a really long answer, but networking is the absolute key for me.

The way Congress is organized is incredible. There's a great deal of grandeur that takes place during the opening session, all the way through the final reception, not to mention all of the different speakers they have lined up and the number of topics that are covered. Sometimes it's very hard to choose between the many things that are being offered, because some of the things that you want to see are happening at the same time. So, because there is so much information that is being presented, you have to pick and choose the time slots and make the best advantage of it that you can.

This organization has helped me-I don't know where I'd be without it. I really am indebted. And then, I have had the opportunity to serve on the executive committee for the Kansas Chapter. For heaven's sake, I'm president-elect this year, and will be president of this chapter next year. Who in the world a few years ago would have thought that I would have that opportunity? I've just been thrilled to have a chance to give back a little something to this organization that has given so much to me.

Noel C. Thompson
Executive Administrator
City of Louisville, Kentucky

To me, Congress means learning more than anything else. You have so many different opportunities to learn: the educational sessions, the keynote speakers, learning from the vendors and, most importantly, learning from your colleagues, whom you get to renew acquaintances with at Congress.

Networking is another great benefit. Becoming acquainted with people who are experts in certain areas, people you can develop friendships with and share your experiences with, people who become sounding boards, and people who become consultants with you on a regular, informal basis. That's a tremendous benefit.

Another great benefit concerns the equipment exposition and being able to stay up with the latest technology. One idea alone could save a community thousands of dollars. That might be the only new thing that you get out of Congress, but it might be the thing that makes that Congress worthwhile.

The keynote speakers stimulate the attendees in many instances to go back and examine their practices and their approach to business. There is also a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization because there are people in many different areas of public works that bring different ideas that kind of synthesize into new ideas. It's a very stimulating environment overall.

At Congress, you feel like you've been pounded with new information, and there is kind of a sorting-through process of what you've heard, but it helps you focus on the information that is applicable to your situation. That information usually is something that you can use to improve, and naturally there is an excitement that comes from it because you've got some good, ready-to-use information.

John M. Heinz
Director of Public Works
Village of Barrington, Illinois

The number-one thing I get out of Congress is networking with my peers, be it other people who do the same thing that I do or consultants who do work for us. That includes people from other areas of the country, certainly, but mainly peers within this area who I usually stay close to when we're at Congress. We have a kind of undivided attention to each other and are able to talk about a whole multitude of things while we're there.

There is a wide variety of individuals who all do the same thing but may do it differently, and they can generate new ideas through attending Congress. The programs have changed significantly in recent years; seminars have changed so that they are more geared to the needs of the membership since they are produced based upon membership input. These programs are excellent, and are very intense learning experiences.

I haven't even mentioned the exhibit floor-I'm sure it may be a cliché, but it's kind of one-stop shopping, where virtually every need that is covered in the public works profession is represented on the floor. You may have some special needs that are in an upcoming budget for a piece of equipment, or a technology, and you can learn more about it on the exhibit floor as well as talk to people who have either purchased the equipment or utilized that service to get their input about it.

You can get some good ideas and come back to your department and try to implement those within the course of the next year or several years, and you always have that piece of knowledge that you never lose.

The educational opportunities have made the greatest impression on me over the years. Because there are so many sessions to choose from within a given time period, you literally can pick and choose from whatever area of interest or focus that you may have, from the most narrow to the broadest of areas.

The advice I'd give anyone who has never attended Congress is that it is a relatively inexpensive trip to make, and the benefits you derive from going far exceed what is spent in attending it.

Robert Aronson
Building Services Superintendent (Retired)
City of Long Beach, California

Essentially, Congress provides the opportunity for people in the public works profession to come together once a year to meet their peers, associates, and fellow practitioners to talk about the issues relative to public works. It's an opportunity for them to hear about some of the successes that others have derived through their processes in their own departments, to network with others who have similar problems in their own local jurisdictions, and to talk about issues and actions and possible solutions to problems.

The educational training program, for example, puts on some of the best programs, because many suggestions come from members. The format used leads to selecting issues that are relevant, of current interest, and highly beneficial to members who come to Congress. With well over one hundred sessions a year, the educational program offers people a smorgasbord of opportunities to delve into the matter further.

The interesting part of public works is the fact that it is so diversified with all of the specialties. I often say that it ranges from airports to zoos and literally everything in between-wastewater, solid waste, you name it-and Congress offers a kind of "Top 40" selection to choose from. There simply is no other forum in the world that offers such a large diversity of activities of an educational nature that Congress does.

Another thing that has brought me back to Congress again and again is the exhibit floor. I don't know of another place in the country with this number of exhibits where you can view the technology and get the expertise from the people who are providing services, materials and technology to the industry.

Once you get a flavor for going around the floor and you look over the wide variety of equipment, services, and suppliers, you get the idea that much of the expertise that you would normally pay a consultant for can be handled directly by just talking to the people who have the information and expertise to help you with your situation.

Perhaps just as important are the professional relationships you can make with people from various parts of the country who have similar interests to you in either the public works profession or the specific trade or technology that you're working in. Often, these relationships lead to personal friendships with exchanges of visits when you as a vacationer go around the country and talk to some of these people from Congress.

I've always looked forward to Congress to see all the different people I've met over the years. That annual time of coming back and refreshing professional and social contacts is very important to people.