Being appointed as city engineers for a local municipalities is more than just a title. It is a responsibility. During business meetings you are often the only engineering professional in the room and councils look to you to provide support for issues they need to resolve. This often brings up concerns by both the council and local residents that you are making recommendations based on your best interest and not the city’s. Until you build a trusting relationship with the community, you are considered an outsider.
Being city engineer cannot just be a seat at the council meeting. You have to be a member of the community who knows how the community functions, not just how the council conducts business. And not only do you have to get to know the community, but the community has to get to know you. One of the first things I noticed when we became the city engineer for a local municipality was the surprise when we dropped in one day and bought lunch for the city employees. They commented that this was the first time they had ever seen their engineer in the community, except when the engineer wanted to get paid for something.
Being city engineer means acting in the best interest of the community. No one likes to get bad news, but oftentimes as engineer you have to tell the community what they need to know and not what they want to hear. This goes for past council members and past actions. For years, communities have been living on their assets. Infrastructure, including water and sewer systems, storm sewers and streets, were built 50 to 60 years ago. Nothing lasts forever and the need to replace failed infrastructure forces communities to acknowledge that past policies to ignore infrastructure maintenance is coming back to haunt them. As the city engineer it becomes your job to help the community come to grips with the situation and start to plan for the reconstruction of city infrastructure.
Being city engineer means you often have to take the lead on issues that no one in the community wants to address. In one municipality, a building on Main Street has been sitting for years in total disrepair. Past councils had not addressed the issue due to the local ownership of the building, and wanting to avoid confrontation with relatives and local residents who would be responsible for rectifying the problems. The current council wanted the problem resolved but needed a third party to stand up and say that the building had to come down. While the engineer was called a number of nasty names during the council meeting, afterwards there were many private thank-yous for addressing the issue and giving the council the leverage to move forward without being the one to make the first decision.
Being the city engineer means you have to be able to introduce change within the community. As I noted before, communities have been living on their assets, deferring maintenance and funding issues to future councils and property owners. Trying to explain to a community that has not addressed infrastructure issues for 50 or 60 years that they need to start spending money and upgrading their water system to meet insurance standards, or replacing the sanitary sewer system before it collapses, can be a difficult task. This takes patience and diplomacy, skills that we as engineers are not known for.
Being a city engineer is more than just a title, it is a duty that takes patience, diplomacy, technical knowledge, and the ability to build relationships and establish trust with the community.