California's first female City Engineer retires

Sarah Layton Wallace
Advancing Infrastructure LLC
Benicia, California

Rosalind "Roz" Daniels, the first woman to hold the title of City Engineer in the State of California, retired in November after more than thirty years as a public works professional in local government. Now retiring as public works director, she is in good and growing company, sharing the title with at least 22 other California women.

Women have entered the public works field in growing numbers over the years, with a notable few having risen in stature as leaders amongst their peers, serving on national and statewide boards, questioning the "way it's always been done," leading policy discussions, and forcing us to reexamine long-held traditions, not just about how we treat women in the workplace, but how we empower and value a diverse and changing work force. Joining Rosalind Daniels at the forefront are women like Christine Andersen (Boulder), Leslie Hotaling (District of Columbia), and Stephanie Green (Detroit).

It was 1978 when Daniels was named City Engineer of Ontario, California, becoming the first woman in the state to hold that title, having proven herself in the position of Assistant City Engineer in just over a year. And although her unprecedented appointment to the City Engineer position initially "raised a few eyebrows," Daniels built a reputation over her years of service as a dynamic, competent public works manager and a leader in the field of public works and engineering, tapped for leadership positions and recognized for excellence.

Leadership in Daniels's case included service as President of the Institute for Transportation (APWA), President of the League of California Cities (LOCC) Public Works Officers Department, service on LOCC's Board of Directors, and on their Policy Committee on Transportation, Communications and Public Works. And within her own public works department, leadership meant tackling tough political and engineering challenges, but also mentoring employees and addressing sexual harassment.

She retires now as Santa Rosa's Director of Public Works, a position she held since 1986. She led a department of 178 employees with a budget of $21 million for a city having a population of 150,000. She was responsible for traffic operations; capital improvement program administration; street, traffic signal, and streetlight maintenance; stormwater management; hazardous materials cleanup; and fleet management for an infrastructure totaling nearly $1 billion in value. Prior to her current position, she held increasingly senior positions with Oregon City, Oregon; Salem, Oregon; and Ontario, California.

It was 1966 when Daniels received her Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. Dave Barnhart, Riverside County's director of transportation and a Berkeley classmate, fondly recalls those days. Barnhart first met Daniels in a class on soil mechanics, which he called "Sandbox 101." They shared other classes as well. Daniels made an impression. "Roz Daniels was the only reason I stayed awake through Structural Engineering," he claims, "and that was no easy task."

Then and now, the public works field is dominated by men. So why enter that field?

Daniels describes it this way. "I was lucky to be raised by parents who always encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do. Consequently, I was 18 before I realized that 'girls' weren't supposed to do 'man's work,'" she said.

It didn't hurt that public works was in the family. A seventh-generation Californian, Daniels calls her father, Fritz Zapf, former Pasadena public works director, her greatest mentor. One of his colleagues became the man who "raised her professionally." Thorney Piersall, who served as Anaheim's public works director from the 50s through the 80s, came to know Daniels through their service in the American Society of Civil Engineers where Piersall recalls Daniels becoming increasingly accepted among her peers as a result of her willingness to tackle tough issues and take solid positions.

When asked the greatest strengths she brought to the job, Barnhart, Piersall, and a host of other colleagues replied: professionalism, preparedness, tenaciousness, leadership. They described a woman of integrity who takes her work seriously, prepares herself thoroughly, builds consensus, then makes recommendations even in the face of controversy.

Jim Ashcraft, now Morgan Hill's public works director, was with the City of Chino in 1978 while Daniels was in Ontario. It wasn't long before Daniels set about building regional dialogues on issues like wastewater and storm drains. She listened to and addressed the concerns of all involved, winning the respect of maintenance employees and managers alike.

Laura Fredson, Santa Rosa's administrative services officer, was a department secretary when Daniels arrived to take over the public works department. "Rosalind Daniels moved beyond the initial expectations about what her prejudices and interests would be to create a team out of a department full of diverse personalities and functions." Fredson described a manager who stood behind her staff and, eventually, became Fredson's mentor, promoting her into management.

What's next for Rosalind Daniels? Post-retirement promises more time to spend with husband, Bob, and grown daughters, Lia and Reka, as well as first granddaughter, Elizabeth, expected in November.

A Q&A with Rosalind Daniels

What are some of the most significant changes you've seen in engineering/public works over the course of your career?

There are two changes that I rank as the most significant, one good and one not so good. The good one is that women in engineering are much more common and accepted now. That really dawned on me when I was at an internal Public Works Department meeting in Santa Rosa about 10 to 15 years ago. Of the four engineers, three were women and one was a man...and there was no particular comment made to acknowledge that fact. We'd come a long way.

The not-so-good change is the inability to provide the needed public works services. Just look at the infrastructure, for example. Can you imagine a major public works project such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the California Aqueduct being built today? It takes a crisis to get anything accomplished. That's an expensive and not-very-smart way to do things.

What changes do you believe are ahead?

One of the most significant changes ahead is the role of environmental stability and sensitivity in everything that we do as public works officials. I don't mean the NIMBYs who use the environmental review process to stop projects just because they don't like them. I mean understanding what our actions do to our fellow creatures and how it comes back to us.

Take channelizing creeks and rivers, for example. As public works officials, historically we have provided excellent flood protection, but at the expense of a very diverse habitat for fish and other creek inhabitants. I am proud to say that Santa Rosa is a leader in creek restoration, both for people and natural inhabitants, not to mention overall improvement of water quality. For the first time in my career, I have been successful in hiring two fisheries biologists as permanent Environmental Specialists for the City. I expect that this "starter group" will grow, eventually being the biology specialists for Santa Rosa. I see this being replicated in other cities and counties.

Do women bring any unique skills or perspectives to the job?

This is an interesting question and one that I have debated often with a good friend of mine who maintains that women are more intuitive and nurturing than men and bring that "softer" quality to the work environment in a good way. I guess because of what I had to do to succeed (the question always raised about me when I was hired or promoted was, "Is she tough enough?"), I have maintained that it is what you do that really counts.

What has been the impact of increasing numbers of women in the field, if any?

I must admit that more women in nontraditional roles has led to a more family-friendly work environment. I remember when you had to resign when you got pregnant. Now we have Family Leave, job-sharing, and part-time work for both fathers and mothers. Nice change.

If there was one thing you could change about local government service, what would it be?

Three things—"the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy!" It is so difficult to get anything done. But it is not only local government. Bureaucracy gets worse the farther "up" you go. I mean, of course, the state and federal governments.

If you had it to do over again, knowing what you know now, would you go into engineering/public works? Why or why not?

As I approached retirement, I thought about this question a lot. And the answer is yes. I'm satisfied with my career and accomplishments. It's been fun. It's been challenging. I believe I've made a difference. I have enjoyed my colleagues. And, most of all, I've enjoyed my family and the example that my husband, Bob, and I have set for our daughters, Reka and Lia.

Why were you involved in APWA and LOCC?

Two reasons. First, I simply have enjoyed both organizations. Knowing that I had only so many hours in the day, I've been selective in the organizations to which I have given my time. Both APWA and the League are ethical and influential organizations that have made differences in the lives of our citizens as well as the engineering and public works professions. Second, it was my way "to give something back." I've been very fortunate. And it feels good to share.

What advice would you give a young woman considering engineering/public works as a career?

Follow your dreams and don't forget that old saying, "You'll only be as successful as a lot of people want you to be." You can't do it alone. But you can do it!