Wanted: Public works director

In the coming weeks, Bainbridge Island will see it’s fourth public works director this year.

The city began advertising this week for a permanent replacement for former director Randy Witt, who left in January to take a job with King County Metro Transit.

Former City Engineer Bob Earl and Deputy Director Lance Newkirk both filled in on an interim basis.

Earl left the city in July for an engineering position with Harris and Associates in Belleve. Earl could not be reached for comment. Newkirk is still debating whether or not to make a run at the permanent position.

City Manager Mark Dombroski said the city will conduct the first review of applications by Sept. 28. The goal is to hire a new director by Nov. 16.

Witt, who still resides on the island, said being an effective public works director requires knowledge in numerous, and sometimes unrelated, fields.

Newkirk, the current interim director, said numerous backgrounds can produce a solid director. A strong candidate should have a background in utilities, along with knowledge of capital projects, planning and finance, Newkirk said.

Without prior experience in the position, the new director will experience a learning curve, Newkirk and Witt said.

“The city is a 24/7 business, and the responsibilities of the position don’t slow down if you’re just coming into it,” Newkirk said.

The director has to learn quickly and adapt to the demands of managing a full department and interacting with the public.

After eight years as director, Witt found the ability to prioritize to be a key part of the job.

When Witt first came to work for Bainbridge, the budget was healthier and more projects could be undertaken. Since then, dollars for public works projects have decreased significantly.

“What you saw was a lot of really good things competing for a diminishing amount of money,” he said.

As the budget for projects dropped, the importance of connection with the public rose, Witt said. The director has to show the public why one project was prioritized over another.

“You’re going to be pretty visible, so you need to be able to work with groups of people, get consensus and deliver projects,” Witt said.

Newkirk prides himself on his work with the community. Newkirk said over his 12 years with the city he has earned a degree of trust with people, but every agency struggles to gain and maintain that confidence.

“Public trust is an extremely important element in the job,” he said. “It’s not unique to Bainbridge, it’s a national phenomenon that there’s not a lot of trust in government.”

Dombroski said the city has emphasized building a relationship with the community as an important piece of the new public works director’s job description.

The department has always employed extraordinary engineers, Dombroski said, but an effective public works department needs more than that.

“You have to have someone who can explain what is going on in the community and have a relationship with them,” he said.

Witt said the new director will have to build a relationship with the City Council, a group empowered by the change of government vote, as well.

The new director will be in the public eye often, Dombroski said, but shuffling the department around behind the scenes will be another important duty.

In the last year, the Public Works Department, which is split into engineering and operations and management divisions, has seen significant reductions in staff. According to the city Human Resources Department, at the end of 2008, public works employed a total of 57 people. Layoffs and unfilled positions has reduced that number to 46.

Layoffs occurred primarily on the engineering side, which is supported by the general fund, as opposed to operations and management being funded by utilities. At the time of the layoffs the city was seeing reduced revenue mainly on the tax-supported side, so cuts in operations and management weren’t necessary.

Dombroski said changes within the department will continue, with the primary change being a reduction in the number of managers.

Currently, the department has a ratio of 3.6 employees per manager, Dombroski said. The city would like that number to be closer to six employees per manager. Fewer managers will force those who remain to get closer to day-to-day operations.

“Anytime you remove layers of management, I think it increases some efficiencies,” Dombroski said.

Dombroski cited a recent plan to combine the development engineering group and capital projects engineering group as an example of one of the ways the department can become leaner.

To find someone who satisfies all of these requirements, Dombroski said the city will conduct its search at the regional level. Dombroski wants a director with knowledge of not only the unique nature of the island, but also an understanding of plans throughout Washington.

“When it comes to policies like transportation issues, they’re very statewide, so it’s good to find someone who knows about state issues,” he said.

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