Are you keeping the city in the dark? The public works director as policy maker

Lee R. Feldman, ICMA-CM
City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida

A few months ago I was asked to author an article on how I perceive the public works director as a policy maker in the city. The textbook answer is the he or she is not a policy maker and that role is left to the governing body and sometimes to an overzealous city manager. However, nothing can be farther from the truth and we must recognize that the public works director today, either intentionally or most times, unintentionally, effectuates if not directly creates public policy in the city or county that employs them. I will not opine whether this is good or bad, but rather simply state it is the way it is, like it or not.

Let me try to illustrate this concept with two typical public works functions: streetlights and speed limits.

There is not a city in this country that does not get a request for the installation of a streetlight—usually far enough down the street that it will not shine in their window, but close enough to provide them with sufficient illumination for their driveway. When this request comes into Public Works Central, the director usually will send someone out in the field to verify that the street is dark and will make a recommendation for installation or not. Is this the policy of the governing body—to put lights where citizens request them? If the public works department has established standards and guidelines regarding the placement of streetlights (i.e., minimum candle feet), has that standard been ratified by the governing body? Has the type of light fixture been approved by the governing body? My point is simply that a mere budgetary allocation for streetlighting should not be perceived by the public works director as a delegation of policy making authority. Why should public works directors be the one to determine how many candle feet of illumination on a residential street is an acceptable standard for the community? Why should public works directors determine the community's compliance or non-compliance with dark sky initiatives? (For more information on dark sky initiatives visit the website of International Dark Sky Association at www.darksky.org.)

Another policy area that public works directors seem to fall into is the establishment of speed limits. When I first moved to town, I lived on a residential street that was classified as an arterial road with a speed limit of 40 mph. This posed a dilemma for me—I enjoyed driving the road at 40 mph, but getting out of my driveway in the morning was a bit of a challenge. So, as any good city manager would, I wanted to meet the person in charge of establishing speed limits in my community. It turns out that there really isn't anyone that sets the speed limits, but rather the "design speed" is the determinant. With that bit of information, getting out in the morning was still a chore. What public works directors fail to realize is that someone had to tell the engineer what the design speed for the road should be. The road could be designed for 30 mph just as easily as 40 mph. But who should make that decision? Often it is the engineer or the public works director; seldom is it the governing body.

The bottom line is that streetlighting, speed limits and a myriad of other public works functions (determining the intensity of storms for design standards, pavement replacement standards, etc.) are all policy creation activities. So if the governing body is in charge of policy, why are you not letting them in on the policy formulation and adoption process? Are you afraid that they will be entering your domain? Well, you shouldn't be—after all, you are the hired hand to help run their city.

Not too long ago, I built a house. Actually it was not me; it was a contractor that built it and an architect that designed it. I never felt more helpless as I did when I realized that the architect and contractor were telling me what I could or could not do with the floor plan of my soon-to-be home. They were making the policy and I would have to live with it. Now think how your governing body enjoys hearing that a resident cannot get a streetlight because they do not meet the criteria that you established. Or how do you explain to a commissioner that the speed limit for the road cannot be reduced because the design speed conflicts with the request? What do you say to the commissioner when they ask why they did not get to approve the design speed for the road?

It should be clear now that there is often a blurry line between what public works directors call "standards" and what the members of governing bodies believe is "policy." There well may be logical precepts that determine the right level of illumination for a street and the right speed for an arterial road segment, but they may be in conflict with the policy of the governing body. When the public works director merely enforces (or imposes) a standard without having that standard ratified by the governing body, the public works director has, indeed, created policy.

My goal in writing this article was not to rebuff you for making policy without anyone telling you to do so. Police chiefs do that; fire chiefs do that; and public utilities directors do that. In fact, we all do that—that is our jobs. However, we must be conscious of the fact that we are doing it and we should not be afraid to let the governing body in on the action. When the policy goes awry, you will be thankful you did.

Lee Feldman has served as the President of the Florida City and County Management Association and as President of the Dade City/County Management Association. He can be reached at feldml@palmbayflorida.org.