A basketful of information: Clarena Tolson

Editor's Note: The first Member Profile of 2004 features Clarena Tolson, Streets Commissioner, Philadelphia Department of Streets, City of Philadelphia, PA; Chapter Delegate, APWA Delaware Valley Chapter; and Director, Chapter Executive Committee.

How did you get involved with the Philadelphia Department of Streets? Actually, I started with the city as a Policy Analyst working for then-mayor William Green. My intentions were to leave civic service and move on to a management consulting firm, as my background is in organizational management, along with some background in accounting. But I found that once I got to civic service I actually loved it, and I've never found work that has been quite as challenging or rewarding. So I'm still here, 21 years later.

I served as a Policy Analyst as I said, and then I went on to be a Legislative Affairs coordinator and lobbyist, and subsequently as Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for the mayor. I also served as assistant to the Finance Director and as Deputy Streets Commissioner. And I have been the Streets Commissioner for the last 18 months (since August 2002), the first woman in this role. The Streets Department has an annual operating budget of $150 million and an annual capital budget of $44 million, serving the nation's fifth-largest city with over 1.5 million residents.

Education: I graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and received a degree in organizational management.

Favorite Book: My favorite know, that is an interesting question. If I think about what I have read over and over, or what I enjoy going to every now and again, what comes to mind is the Bible. Relevant, still a challenge, always something that peaks my curiosity. That's the book that I would probably list.

Hobbies/Interests: My passion is fishing. Whether it be deep sea, stream or lake, or freshwater fishing. I've loved it since I was a teenager.

Role Model: Probably Oprah Winfrey. I appreciate her keen business sense and her ability to motivate people—she's a leader in her field. I also appreciate her philanthropic interests. Her sense of community is very important.

Career Accomplishments: I think that I've had a unique opportunity as a public works leader to impact the lives of Philadelphians, and I see my role as purely that—as someone who can organize and make decisions with regard to policy, but with an understanding that policy impacts lives. The Sanitation Division collects trash and recyclables from over 537,000 households. Our Highway Division manages the safe condition of over 2,100 miles of streets in the city. The Traffic Engineering Division maintains 3,000 traffic signals and 250,000 traffic signs, and Street Lighting is responsible for over 100,000 streetlights. These operations and services have a real impact on our residents, businesses, and visitors.

We've had some programs that have been developed during my tenure that I'm quite proud of. One is a residential, mechanical cleaning program. We also focused on removing hazardous waste from our households and developed a hazardous waste collection program, and a Tire Round-Up program, which did not exist before. Then we also did something in terms of convenience when we moved trash and recycling collections to the same day.

We have a policy in our department to reach out to the citizens and the community. We have a sense of the importance of community meetings. All of our managers are encouraged to participate in community meetings. So we are very community friendly. We don't have a system where we dictate policy—we are very much interested in hearing from our citizens and their interests. We try to serve those interests.

Awards Received: The department has received a number of awards. I've personally received the 2003 Woman of Distinction from our local media, called "Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things." Also, I've had the opportunity to do a number of presentations for APWA as well as the U.S. Conference of Mayors with regard to developing enlightened managers or managing and motivating citizen volunteers.

Additionally, the department has received some awards of note. We won the 2002 Governor's Award for Labor Management Cooperation. We won the Governor's Environmental Excellence Award for Recycling on two occasions, as well as the Professional Recyclers and Wastewatchers Award. These were all on the integrated waste management side.

On the transportation side, we have had a number of bridges that have received significant awards. Our bridge section has received awards for two recent bridges. Our Gowen Avenue Bridge won a Design Award for Excellence from the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, and the Germantown Avenue Bridge won an award for notable engineering achievement that was just awarded in December from the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers. I think we have a world-class bridge section, and they do wonderful work.

You participated in the Urban Forum for several years. What are your thoughts about that group? I think that the Urban Forum provides an excellent opportunity for networking amongst demographically-similar entities like cities. We have our own unique set of challenges, which gives us an opportunity to share solutions, share learnings. Certainly, from my experience with that group, I've come away with operational solutions to some of the challenges that we face in snow. And I've come away with some ideas for development with regard to transportation management and transportation policies. So I think all around that it's a wonderful organization for any of our large cities to become involved in.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? APWA is a great organization in terms of bringing like-minded folks together. Certainly the international acclaim that it holds and that international perspective are good, but it fundamentally can address the issues and concerns of each and every local entity, whether it be city, county, or smaller town. And the fact that it brings together people from public agencies, private sector companies, and individuals who have interest in the public works area, serves the good for those of us who are members.

I have been quite impressed with the competency of all who are involved in this organization, and I can say that from my participation in past Congresses and Snow Conferences that I have always walked away with a basketful of information that I can share with managers back in Philadelphia. We have been able to do some things for the city that had their genesis in dialogues from those conferences or from the association itself.