"The Michael Jordans of Public Works": Keith Hunke

Editor's Note: July's Member Profile features Keith Hunke, Public Works Director-Service Operations for the City of Bismarck, North Dakota; President of APWA's North Dakota Chapter; and member of APWA's Solid Waste Management Technical Committee.

Current position: I'm the Director of Public Works for Service Operations. The Public Works Department in Bismarck was divided into two divisions back in 1998 when I came on board, and the division I'm responsible for is Service Operations, which includes roads and streets, solid waste, streetlighting, traffic signals, alley maintenance, sidewalk maintenance, right-of-way maintenance, and fleet and facility maintenance.

The other division of Public Works in Bismarck is Utility Operations, which includes all of the water areas: the water plant, wastewater plant, water distribution system, sewer collection system and stormwater system. There's another person who holds the Director of Public Works title for that division. He has the same first name as my own—his name is Keith Demke. So we have all kinds of fun with people calling for Keith, and they get the last names mixed up or mispronounced.

Tell us about your background: I've been more or less a lifer with the City of Bismarck. I started working for Bismarck right out of high school as a summertime laborer in the Street Department. I completed my four-year degree and started working full-time for the city right out of school as an equipment operator. I did that for a few years, and was then promoted to Shop Foreman; I held that position for a few years, and was promoted to Purchasing Agent. From that position I was promoted to my present position.

Education: I received my undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Mary, a nonprofit private college located here in Bismarck. Ten years after I completed that I went back to grad school, and I received my master's degree in public administration from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. The University of North Dakota has a satellite location in Bismarck which allowed me to take classes here.

Favorite Book: Actually, no favorite book. I spend most of my reading time reading periodicals and magazines—a number of trade magazines and, of course, the Reporter. I place some self-imposed peer pressure on myself; I see what other people are doing in other communities, and compare or use that as benchmarks for activities here in Bismarck.

Hobbies/Interests: I spend my free time hunting and fishing here in North Dakota; we have great opportunities to do that. Also, in the winter months when it gets really cold and nasty, I'll spend time refinishing old furniture.

Role Model: Well, when I look at role models, the two people who shaped who I am today are my father and mother. My father died from complications of emphysema when he was only fifty years old. But prior to that he more or less knew what was happening, and he prepared my mother, me, and my two brothers quite extensively with a lot of planning, and it taught me the virtues and importance of planning, regardless of whether it pertains to family matters or business matters. Of course, my mother gave me her undivided attention and neverending love, which all mothers seem to provide to their children. Those two would be my role models. My wife, Danita, is the binder and glue that keeps me together on a daily basis.

Tell us more about Bismarck's Public Works Department: We're a full-service department. We provide all the water services—freshwater treatment and wastewater treatment. We provide all of the services on the solid waste end of business. We do our own garbage collection in Bismarck, and also run our own landfill. We provide all maintenance for 300 centerline miles of streets and alleys, 5,900 streetlights, and 87 signalized intersections. We also provide fleet maintenance activities for all divisions within the Public Works Department.

The population of Bismarck is 55,000. We have about a 28-square service mile area, and 19,000 real property parcels within that area. As far as staffing goes, we have 132 employees within the two divisions; there are 82 employees in Service Operations and 50 employees in Utility Operations.

Career Accomplishments: I suppose internal promotions and being a lifer with the city might be viewed as an accomplishment. Outside of that, I would have to include my involvement with the North Dakota Chapter of APWA, where I was a director for a number of years, moving up into the Secretary/Treasurer and Vice President positions. I'm currently the Chapter President this year.

I was honored to be nominated to serve as a member of the APWA Solid Waste Management Technical Committee. Just to give you some feedback, in February when we had the Combined Meeting with the committees and traveled down to Kansas City, I was just awestruck at the hospitality, friendliness and professionalism of all of the national officeholders. And alongside of that, I appreciated that all of the participants had a lot of common sense, and were very polite and easy to talk to. It seemed that everyone from the Kansas City office made a point to find me and say, "Hi, I'm so and so," and it was nice to put faces to names that I had either read about in the Reporter or through some of the InfoNOW Community e-mails. So that was really neat.

I came back to Bismarck and everyone was asking, "Well, how was the trip?" and "How did you do?" And I said, "Let me put it this way: Everyone seems to know who Michael Jordan is, and his expertise and greatness in basketball. Well, I just spent the weekend with the Michael Jordans of public works." I'm very excited about my continuing involvement with that committee.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? It gives me an opportunity to network with peers. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise that is easy to access. The people who are involved at the national level are very easy to work with and easy to contact; you get a quick response and everyone seems to have a willingness to help out. I guess if you had to sum it up in one word, it would be resources.

I actually had a lot of anxiety coming into this role here in Bismarck. And something that has really helped is being able to get the technical expertise and the sharing of information from fellow APWA members. Prior to taking on this role I was quite passive in my involvement in the association, but all of a sudden I was facing these other needs and challenges and I found it to be a great resource to be a member. All of the tools that we have are just amazing. Everything I encounter on a daily basis I can get help with from InfoNOW or from past issues of the Reporter. I can also use the names and business cards I exchanged in February to get help.

That's something that we are trying to disseminate through our state chapter. In North Dakota most of our communities are quite small, under a thousand in population. You'll find that the public works person wears all the hats in the community. They don't have the resources to have somebody who's in charge of one or two areas—they're in charge of everything. So we're trying to be a resource here in the chapter with the officers and directors, and trying to move information out to these smaller communities. We're finding that all of the communities in North Dakota are highly connected electronically, and we feel that an important tool for these people is the APWA website.