On the Other Hand…

A public works director read my column about a slow pace of work in the public sector. His response was a point well taken.

Last August in this space I wrote about the difference between the pace of work in the private sector and the public (and utility) sector.

I noted based on experience in both worlds that people in the private sector do things at a quicker pace, with more urgency, with more responsiveness to customers. 

About two months after the column appeared I got a response — the only one I received — from a public works director, and it made me, figuratively, slap the side of my face. Here is some of what this gentleman, Jim Massengill from Deming, New Mexico, had to say.

He first asked whether I’d recently had some sort of “less than desirable experience at a city or county office” and used that as a reason to disrespect public workers (that wasn’t the case). He went on to mention his own experience in the public and private sectors.

“Each has their own set of problems, but for the most part, each has good employees who care. For 10 years I’ve watched employees go out in the middle of the night to fix water leaks and sewer backups to ensure natural gas was flowing when cold snaps hit in the middle of the winter and, yes, in the middle of the night.”

STANDING CORRECTED

Point extremely well taken. Failing to mention that part of utility life was a serious omission on my part. Sure, there are times my wife and I have received less than stellar service from the government in the township where we live — like the time it took two months and three phone calls to secure a dog license.

But then there was the time I observed a large pothole in our town road, called the town to politely report it and saw that it was filled in the very next day. As for the plant operators who read this magazine, in almost every issue there’s an anecdote or two about a team who reacted to an emergency with skill and speed, in just the way Massengill described.

TPO has reported on operators working ridiculous hours and sleeping at their plant during floods or other weather events to keep drinking water flowing and wastewater effluent within permit limits. Operators made huge sacrifices and dealt with substantial personal inconvenience during the COVID pandemic.

We’ve described how at plants not typically staffed overnight, operators rotate being on call and respond to alarms at all hours if need be. A future  edition describes how a team at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District in Massachusetts reacted to a problem with overflow — a messy and time-consuming job that they tackled willingly, and successfully.

EXTRA MILES

Again, from my own life, I recall the time when a storm brought a huge tree limb down on our neighbor’s screen porch. The husband was hacking away at it with a small electric chain saw, when along came a crew from the power utility with an industrial strength gasoline-powered Stihl model with a bar about three feet long.

Although it wasn’t their job to clear trees away from private homes, they attacked that limb and made the sawdust fly. Plant operators go the extra mile like that all the time.

So, what in fact was I thinking when I wrote that column back last summer? What triggered it? I’m not sure. I meant no disrespect but, as Massengill astutely pointed out, I left out a very big part of the picture.

Metaphorically, I painted with much too broad a brush. Or, more to the point, I preached about “riding the motorcycle through the flaming hoop” to people who know very well how to do it. And so I’ll simply close with two non-English words that seem appropriate: Mea culpa.  



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