You want to be caring: Maurice Shiu

Editor's Note: This month's Member Profile features Maurice Shiu, Public Works Director for Contra Costa County, California, member of the Northern California Chapter, and member of APWA's Accreditation Council.

How did you get involved in public works? My father was a chemical engineer, and engineering always fascinated me. I was born in Hong Kong, and reading news about flooding along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers made me want to be a civil engineer and work on projects to control flooding in these two rivers. In 1964 I came to the United States and enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley in civil engineering.

In my senior year I started thinking about the life of a civil engineer sitting behind a drafting table, designing things that I might never see. It didn't sound too thrilling to me. So I started searching around, looking at different options. I took a class in traffic engineering and was just fascinated by it. So I got my master's degree at Berkeley in traffic and transportation engineering. The whole idea was that it was something where I would deal with the people, making their lives better. And it was only natural to go into public works.

  Maurice Shiu

I think being brought up in a Catholic, Jesuit school also helped shape my goal for my life, which was to serve the people. So it kind of came natural for me.

Have you also worked in the private sector? No. I graduated from college, went to work for Contra Costa County, and I've been here for 32 years.

Favorite Book: I read a lot of Chinese classics. But I really don't have a favorite book. Usually I just pick up a book, read it, and I don't even remember who the author is or the title of the book (laughs). Thinking about it, Dickens probably had the most impact on my formative years as a social activist.

Hobbies/Interests: I do a lot of woodwork. I was an assistant scout master. I play a lot of soccer. And right now I'm searching for additional hobbies.

Role Model: That's a tough question. I try to learn from people surrounding me, and I believe that everybody will have something for me to learn from. But if you really want to have a role model—and I almost hate to say this because I could never be this kind of a person—Jesus Christ and Confucius come to mind. You want to be caring, serving, straightforward, and principled, but yet understanding that there are more ways to look at the same issues. But my sense is I learn from everybody.

Career Accomplishments: That's a tough, tough question, because I play a part in a lot of projects, programs, and initiatives. But should I get a credit for those things? Probably not. But if there's one accomplishment that I can really take credit for, it's that I pretty much trained everybody in this department. I enjoy developing subordinates and making them good managers.

After saying that, a couple of things have popped in my mind. Back in 1991, when Congress passed ISTEA [Intermodal Service Transportation Efficiency Act], which is a major departure in terms of policy directions from the interstate era, California had to implement ISTEA by passing a new law. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, representing the counties in California that were also part of the San Francisco Bay Area group that helped shape the California consensus for the federal reauthorization. I was able to influence the implementation legislation to the degree that was really rewarding for me.

We have a major state highway in our county that we couldn't get any funding for because it's not an interstate route. We introduced a local sales tax measure for transportation and the measure passed. We went to the state DOT and they said it would be ten years before they could complete the project. However, the elected official wanted it done in three years. So we took on the project, which was about seventy million dollars, and it was under construction within eighteen months and completed within the three-year time frame. So I think that was a major accomplishment.

The last, and certainly not the least, would be our sharing in the accreditation effort of the department, which is a major accomplishment. We actually started as soon as APWA had a self-assessment process. But we weren't sure if the department was up to it, so we moved slowly, kept testing the staff, and then finally decided that it was time to push forward. And we're happy that we got it done.

I believe the accreditation benefits the department in many ways. I'll give you an example: We knew we needed to have landscaping standards for developers so that they would know the level of landscaping that we needed, as well as policies concerning drought resistance and things like that. But we never really had everything put in one place. The accreditation process forced us to develop a landscaping manual and guidelines which actually helped us afterwards working with developers, contractors, and design architects as to how the street landscape would look. So that's a major accomplishment.

Awards Received: Oh, you know, I shy away from publicity. But the department has received numerous awards. For example, we received an award from the Society of Women Engineers for being progressive and attracting female engineers into the profession. This year we received the Employer of the Year Award from the International Right-of-Way Association.

Tell us about the Public Works Department in Contra Costa County: Contra Costa County has about one million in population. About twenty percent of that lives in the unincorporated county. We serve about fifteen different communities. We have a budget of approximately fifty million dollars. Basically it is for drainage and road purposes. We also operate two airports. We have a staff of about three hundred, and of that about fifty are engineers. We are probably the only public agency in the Bay Area that has an onsite childcare facility. We are very active both in the regional and state arenas trying to shape the future, so to speak. And, of course, we're one of the two accredited agencies in California, the other being the City of Berkeley.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? I joined over twenty years ago more for career development—APWA put on very good classes. The opportunity to network with other public works professionals is very beneficial because through your networking you get new ideas and you might create a relationship which could lead to future cooperation on your projects. Also, as I've continued to move up in the organization, I've encouraged my subordinates to join and be active, because I think it is an excellent opportunity for them to evolve and to further their career objectives.