You can move mountains: Brenda Herrman

Editor's Note: This issue's Member Profile features Brenda Herrman, Director of Public Works, City of Hays, Kansas; Chair, APWA Congress Program Review Committee; former member, APWA Public Works Projects of the Year Committee; and Past President of the Kansas Chapter.

How did you get involved in public works? In 1990 I was working for the City of Wichita Falls, Texas, in a support staff capacity. I had been an Administrative Secretary in the Finance Department. In November of that year, I was hired as the Administrative Secretary in the Public Works Department. And interestingly enough, I got introduced to the American Public Works Association before I really got introduced to what public works actually does. The Texas Chapter has an annual conference every year, and the following summer in June, Wichita Falls was hosting the annual conference. So when I was hired, one of my main duties right off the bat was to put together this conference and make it work. After June of '91 I actually became truly introduced to what public works is, what it does, and how important it is in every community.

I've worked in public works since 1990. In 1996 I became the Assistant Director of Public Works in Hays, Kansas. In 2002 I was promoted to Director of Community Development. And in May of 2003, the City Manager appointed me to be the Director of Public Works.

Role Model: Without a doubt, there is one person in my life who made a difference. George Bonnett is the gentleman who was the former Director of Public Works in Wichita Falls (now retired). Actually he ended up teaching me, in the five and a half years that I worked for him, how to run a public works department. I didn't always get in on the beginning of things, but he taught me what the end result should be. I learned very valuable lessons then that I draw from in my daily activities today.

While I was working for George, I went through a divorce. And it was at that time that I wondered if I could live on the salary that I was currently making for the rest of my life. George encouraged me to start college. So, because of George's encouragement and because he believed in me when nobody else did, I started college at age 42. I was working full-time and going to school nights. And in a period of five years and three months, in 1997 I earned my Bachelor's Degree in Public Administration from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. That was a huge personal accomplishment for me.

After completing that test of endurance, I told myself that I was never going to set foot in a classroom again. But after talking with George again from long distance, he said, "You know, you have a tremendous four-year university right there in your town, and you're kind of silly not to go on for your master's degree." So I sat out one semester, and then I entered Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, and earned a Master's of Liberal Studies with emphasis in Organizational Leadership in the year 2000. So, when I turned 50, I also had a master's degree. It only goes to show that you can teach old dogs new tricks!

George Bonnett influenced my career life in a very positive way for many years. George is a treasured friend and my confidant. His wife Judy also offered support through my educational and career trek. George is at the top of my pedestal and I am in awe to hold the same title that he held.

Favorite Book: There's no better book in the world than the Holy Bible. That is my favorite book.

I found when I went to college that there was so much reading that was required, that since I got out I really have not done a lot of outside reading. One thing that does help me, though, after tough days at work dealing with public works issues and problems is a series of books called Chicken Soup for the Soul. It just kind of helps me find balance in my inner being by reading those stories.

Hobbies/Interests: I love to travel. I like to do gardening in the spring and summer and I like to do crafts in the wintertime when I can't get outside.

In 2001, I married Les Herrman, and I really love to spend time with my husband. That's a true interest for me. God has blessed me with a wonderful husband, and we spend a lot of time together.

Career Accomplishments: My biggest career accomplishment is advancing from an Administrative Secretary, getting my education, and becoming a Director of Public Works in seven years.

When I moved to Hays in 1996, I was fortunate enough to work on establishing a recycling program. It's about a ten-year-old program now and I'm very pleased to say that it's the best volunteer recycling program in the State of Kansas, and has been recognized as such for many years. We have over eighty percent of our customers who recycle on a regular basis. I was also able to start a compost operation that has grown phenomenally and has become one of the best services that we in Public Works provide for our community.

I've had the opportunity to write and participate in over thirty million dollars worth of grants since I've been here. By some standards that's not a lot, but for a community our size (20,000 population) it is. Without those grants, obviously, we could not make needed infrastructure improvements. We've developed a very good rapport with the state agencies, and we take advantage of every grant opportunity they have.

I'm part of a group that is finding a solution to water issues here in Hays. We have been known as a community that has experienced water shortages. While that's not a true statement, we're trying to overcome that myth by securing short-term and long-term water sources for this community for the next hundred-plus years. This issue has been going on for decades, so it's nice to be a part of something of this magnitude that's finding closure in a very positive way that's going to affect this community for a long, long time.

Something else that I consider an accomplishment is being able to serve on the Executive Committee for the Kansas Chapter of APWA. What a tremendous group of people and what opportunities there are. I also felt very fortunate to be selected as Past President to serve on the APWA Strategic Planning Meeting in January 2004. I served on the Small Cities and Rural Communities Task Force several years ago, which is now a recognized forum in APWA. I got in on the grassroots of that, and that was a wonderful experience as well.

Another career accomplishment is being a female director of public works. That is becoming more and more commonplace. There are many women who have come before me in these positions, and they literally were trendsetters and pathfinders. So I feel very fortunate to be a director of public works as a female. It is still a male-dominated field. But when I go to Congress every year I'm delighted to see more and more women in different capacities who are participating in Congress. Nonetheless, at least in our neck of the woods, it is still very definitely a man's world. It was an honor to be recognized by Fort Hays State University as the 2003 Female Leader in our community.

On the civic side, I serve on the local Lion's Club Board of Directors. I am a new member of the Fort Hays State University Athletic Association Board, and I'm active in our church.

With all that being said, I certainly want to say that nothing that I have done would have been possible without the dedicated staff that I have, all sixty-three of them. They do a good job every day! I'm very proud of the people who work in the Public Works Department, and I'd like to say that we work with each other and they don't work for me. In my mind, if you work together you can move mountains. And if you choose not to then you'll waste all your energy working on molehills. There's just so much to be said for teamwork and team effort.

Tell us more about the City of Hays Public Works Department: When I was appointed as Director of Public Works in 2003, I merged three existing departments under the public works umbrella. There are now sixty-three employees in the department and the major functions that public works covers today are Planning and Zoning; Building and Construction Inspection; Code Enforcement; Solid Waste; Water Transmission and Distribution; Wastewater Collection and Treatment; Fleet Maintenance; Vehicle Replacement Schedule; Buildings and Grounds; Streets and Alleys; Traffic Signs and Signals; Snow and Ice Clearing and Removal; Flood Structures and Storm Sewer Maintenance; Capital Improvement Program; and General Administration.

You've been on APWA's Congress Program Review Committee for the past couple of years. What has that experience been like for you? Yes, I served on the Congress Program Review Committee for two years. In 2003 I served as a member, and then was asked to chair that committee for 2004. What an interesting committee with a real challenging opportunity, because the decisions that we made are the basis of the next Congress, as far as the topics and many of the speakers. Making sure that all the different aspects of public works are covered was an important concern for this committee. So for whoever attends Congress, regardless of their field of expertise or anything they're trying to learn, we offer educational opportunities for all of them. Trying to find a balance in all of that is very interesting.

The group that we had this year was just a wonderful group. They understood the purpose of what they were doing. We had very long discussions, and I think we prioritized and spaced topics so that we didn't have a lot of conflicts with related topics. It's always hard when you're at Congress looking at the schedule of educational sessions and thinking, "Okay, what session am I going to attend for this fifty-minute slot or this hour-and-a-half slot?" And invariably there's more than one session that you want to attend, so it becomes a matter of choosing one session over another. That's inevitable but it's a very good problem to have. If we didn't offer enough, then people would be bored and wouldn't show up at all. Having too much I think is a better problem than not offering enough.

You've also been a member of APWA's Public Works Projects of the Year Committee. How challenging is it to select the top projects of the year? That, too, was very challenging. I was a member the first year and a co-chair the second time I did it. I got a large box that had about 150 different projects that I had to review.

There were so many worthwhile projects that were submitted. As I read through them I thought, golly, this one was even better than the last one. And the further I went, the stronger that statement became. Trying to rank them and give credit to the projects was difficult. I wish it was possible to recognize all of them, because they are all good projects. But I was delighted to see all the phenomenal projects going on across the country. It was a very enlightening experience for me.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? Well, I've said this for years and I'm going to say it again. The American Public Works Association has been and continues to be an investment in my future. From the time I helped with Congress in Dallas in 1995—I was not a member then so I paid my own way and found a way to assist the national staff—I just knew that if I would become involved in this association that it was going to benefit me and my career. And I'm here to tell you that it has, profoundly.

The network of people that I've been able to establish over the eight and a half years I've been in Kansas is absolutely phenomenal. There's no question or problem that comes across my desk that I can't pick up the phone and call or e-mail a member of the American Public Works Association and get answers. There are other people who have already been there done that, and they are more than willing to share the information.

They're also willing to tell you the safeguards, the things you should avoid. If they've already been down this road and experienced some negative happenings, they'll share those things with you. Public works people are simply good, common, decent people, and they're willing to help each other. I find that to be one of the most rewarding things about this association. I haven't encountered anybody yet that I've called and asked a question that wasn't more than willing to help provide the answer if they had it. And if they didn't have it, they sent me to someone they thought would. The American Public Works Association offers a "helping hand" for providing solutions to problems that we all encounter.

I have been really blessed to be able to serve on national committees. I look at this as an opportunity for me to give something back to this association, because they simply have been so good to me. APWA provides an untold wealth of information, allows for the opportunity of networking, and I've developed friendships along the way.

I really like that the American Public Works Association is becoming the organization to turn to for all public works aspects. There are other associations that specialize in certain arenas of public works, but the American Public Works Association touches all of them. I find that very beneficial, particularly if I'm limited on the travel that I can do, whether it be money or time. APWA will give me a good bang for the buck every time, in any and all aspects of public works.

The educational opportunities are there, and it's just a matter of tapping into them. I like that the association listens to the membership to see what it is that we need and what we are asking for. And I think they truly make an effort to respond and react to the needs of the membership. That's very important.

I'd like to reemphasize the importance of mentoring. Because there was someone many years ago who believed in me and encouraged me, it made a huge difference in my life. Mentoring is something that you receive, and then you pass it on so that it's a never-ending cycle.