Teamwork Forged in Smoke

Cookouts and tours help the treatment plant staff in Albert Lea create connections with other departments and city leadership.
Teamwork Forged in Smoke
Rick Ashling

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Clean-water plant teams often feel isolated — they work on the outskirts of town, not in visible places like the fire station, city hall, or the library.

Imagine the team at the treatment plant in Albert Lea, Minn., out in the country well beyond the city limits. Rick Ashling, plant superintendent, says even most city employees had never been to the facility — until he and his team made a special effort to start forging connections with them.

Last September, Ashling invited the entire staff from city hall to a special cookout that included plant tours led by members of the eight-person operating staff. He considers it essential not just for city employees to know what goes on at the treatment plant, but for members of all city departments to understand what other departments do.

Ashling talked with Treatment Plant Operator about the event at Albert Lea’s 12 mgd activated sludge tertiary treatment plant, and about the importance of communicating across department lines.

TPO: How did you get the idea for this cookout for the city hall team?

Ashling: Our wastewater treatment plant is five miles from town. Being in a remote location, it’s easy for the staff to feel left out, like they’re not part of the city.

Periodically, in summer, we have a cookout for our staff here. Everybody puts in two or three bucks, I’ll go buy hot dogs or hamburgers and a can of beans, and we’ll have a lunch for those who want to participate. Once or twice a year, I’ll invite Steven Jahnke, our Public Works director, who is my boss. That way he gets the opportunity to sit down and have meal with the guys. Mike Zelenak, our human resources director, has also joined us on occasion.

Other people in city hall found out about the cookouts and they would say, “Boy, I would like to do that.” One of the billing clerks told me, “I’ve worked for the city for 40 years and I don’t even know where the wastewater treatment plant is.” And I said, “OK, let me see what I can do.”

TPO: How did you go about arranging this larger cookout?

Ashling: I asked Mike Zelenak if there was any way I could do it. He talked to Chad Adams, our city manager, who said it was OK to do it, but there was no money available for it. I said, “Don’t worry about that, I’ll pay for it myself.”

Steven Jahnke and Mike Zelenak helped me pay for the brats, buns, potato chips and pop — enough to serve about 30 people. My staff members said, “OK, we’ll buy some cookies.” So everybody contributed something.

TPO: How did you handle the logistics around people’s work schedules?

Ashling: I invited the entire staff from city hall, which is finance, legal, the city manager’s office, and engineering. We didn’t take anybody away from their work. We held the cookout for two hours. People came out for their lunch hour, and then our operators would take them on tours of the plant. City council member Larry Anderson joined us.

We held the event on a Friday. It was a beautiful day, sun shining, blue skies, about 65 degrees, hardly any wind. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. We had lunch in the shade on the lawn next to the administration building. Mark Haeska, one of our maintenance people, did the grilling.

Groups came out from the city and we had everything all ready for them. They would sit down and visit and enjoy their meal, and then one of the operators would take three or four of them and walk them through the plant.

TPO: How would you say the visitors reacted?

Ashling: They told me they were very impressed with the knowledge of our staff — how well they explained how the plant works. They were amazed at the amount of technology it takes to accomplish what we need to accomplish.

The accounts payable people get bills from me on a regular basis for $30,000 or $70,000 or $5,000. Sometimes I hear the comment, “All you do is spend money — you’re so expensive.” This way they got to see what we do that costs so much — the machinery, the computers and everything else. We even had one secondary clarifier dewatered for a repair, and they were able to see the workings inside.

TPO: Was there any discomfort on anyone’s part about visiting a treatment plant?

Ashling: As I was asking who would be coming out, so I could get a headcount, I told some of the women, “There might be some odors — I hope you won’t be offended by that.” You know what the answer was? “We change diapers — we’re used to odors.” The men were more concerned about it than the ladies were. That surprised me.

TPO: Why was it important for the finance people to see your facility?

Ashling: As part of their job, they take utility bill payments, so they’re the ones who get the complaints: “Why is this sewer bill so high?” If they understand the money it takes to operate our facility, and the good we do, they can answer those questions more effectively. They’re the first line of communication. I feel it’s very important that they’re knowledgeable — and not only in what this plant does, but what other departments do.

TPO: How did the members of your team like the cookout?

Ashling: They really enjoyed it. They’re willing to do it again.

TPO: Have you done outreach to other departments in the city?

Ashling: We’ve had people from the utility department come in. They take care of the force main that comes out here. We do the health department testing for drinking water. So I’ve had utility people come out, and I’ve taken them on tours. They also didn’t realize everything we do — they were just concerned about getting the water to us. We’re talking that possibly next summer we’ll do another cookout and invite the team from the garage — streets, utilities and parks.

TPO: What’s the importance of making connections with those teams?

Ashling: The street department comes out and plows our roads. We store the Christmas decorations for the parks department. The recreation department, we use some of their classrooms at the city arena for safety training. It’s very easy to understand what those departments do, but it would help for them to become more familiar with what we do.

It’s something I would like to see expand. For example, the finance department should go see the utility department, the street department, the parks department — what they do and what kinds of equipment they have. I consider it to be team building, to know what everybody else is doing.

TPO: Do you make it a point to keep your city council members well informed?

Ashling: After elections when new people come onto the council, part of their orientation is to come here for a tour. Even if I have to stay at night to do it, I will give them a tour.

TPO: In general, do you make plant tours for the community a priority?

Ashling: Yes, but what’s sad is that with the economy going down, one thing the school districts have cut out is field trips. It’s a big problem. We need the elementary school kids to see what we’re doing. That’s the age where education starts — where they can grow up to appreciate water quality. That’s also the point where you likely could get someone interested in entering this field.

TPO: What advice would you have for readers of this magazine about reaching out to other people and departments in municipal government?

Ashling: I tell people that the wastewater treatment plant is one of the most misunderstood departments in a city. When you walk into your house and flip a switch, you have light. You turn on the faucet, you have water. You turn up the thermostat, you have heat. You turn it down, you have cool. You can see that you’re getting something for your money.

But when you flush the toilet, it goes away and you don’t know what happens. So people don’t understand. I think team building — bringing others in and making them familiar with what you do — is the first step toward having them appreciate what you do.  


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