Connecting with Your Community

Jim Proce
Public Works Director
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Presenter, 2007 APWA Congress

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the ninth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

When I was asked to write this article on "Connecting with Your Community" I thought sure, I'd love to do my part for APWA, but then I thought, hmmmm...what do I have to offer? I am just this talkative public works guy from Palm Bay, Florida. And besides, APWA has some really good stuff on community outreach out there by more experienced people than me. There's National Public Works Week and all sorts of "how to's" in the APWA bookstore. So, I thought, should I perhaps defer to one of those APWA authors? Then I hopped on my mountain bike and went for a ride to think about it.

As I peddled around town looking at drainage structures, visiting construction projects, and checking out pothole complaints, it dawned on me almost immediately: I have a few stories that I can share, things that you can copy, borrow, and even steal, that are low cost, common sense things, easy to do, and some that are actually fun to do, too. So I gathered my thoughts and started typing. Those who know me well, know that I like to communicate (, so this is quite the challenge to keep it around 1200-1500 words (sorry Ann Daniels, not gonna happen). So here goes...

In the beginning there was public works, and the public works process was that we all worked our tails off and, as long as you did your job, no one cared or noticed. The more invisible you were the better. It was when you didn't do what was expected of you that things got squirrelly and the complaints (now we call them service requests and citizen inquiries) poured in, and everyone in town got to know who you were and that was where the real pain began. Think about it for a moment...haven't we all had that moment in our city council meeting or while reading the local newspaper where you felt as if someone was ripping out your spine as they completely twisted your words, or worse yet they just blatantly lied about something you told them, and of course as always your intentions were most honorable?

Why weren't theirs???

So what did you do?

Well, aside from biting a hole through your own lip, you probably took the bullet, each and every time, didn't you? (That is, if continued employment was one of your personal interests.) Well, to tell you the nasty truth, it is what we do and it is part of the job. After a while you get that thick skin thing going and the pain eventually lessens and you fall into the dismal abyss of complacency. Oh no!

Aside from that thick skin we all have to develop as public works folks these days, we also need to develop that bulletproof vest if we are to survive and be successful in this business, while avoiding the complacency that often results in our demise. But how you do this is not by taking the Genghis Khan scorched earth approach that prohibits you from taking any crap from anyone (although there is a place for that too—different article). Shooting back at those shooting at you seldom results in you not getting hit too and subsequently bleeding out. You have to become the marketing and promotions expert, the neighbor and friend to everyone in the community, that superhero problem solver that everyone trusts and depends upon to do whatever it takes to get it done, even if it isn't your job, so someone else can take the credit and you can take the blame (phew!), and yes, you still have be the fall guy and that big target for all the crazies who want someone to pick on—and you still can't shoot back, as much as you might want to.

Well, as we all know, public works folks typically haven't been good about marketing and self-promotion; many of us seem to fear it, avoid it, and leave the accolades to our counterparts (let's call them guns and hoses) who have it down to an art form with all the charity work, volunteer work, and—oh yeah—that saving of lives thing that makes them so popular. The problem is if we tried to follow their lead it may get us executed which goes against that continued employment goal. Let's face it, we are the Rodney Dangerfields of public service, although it does not have to be that way!

So it takes a bit more savvy and a lot of hard work to get similar results as those guns and hoses guys, to get the respect of the community. Besides, no one wants to see public works guys standing in intersections begging for loose change for some charity. Shouldn't we be out fixing a pothole or something somewhere?

In today's public works departments you have to "connect with your community" and you have to do it all and more, with less. So in my case, being the 11th Public Works Director in the last 25 years in my city, I thought I better get this right and right quick.

There are all of the obvious things that many of you have already made good use of to connect with your communities. Let me bore you for a moment and get those out of the way first.

Websites - these are great ways to get information out there, but keep your site up-to-date, active, and solicit input from your visitors. Some of them actually have great ideas.

Newsletters - Create newsletters from your department! If you have a website you already have content so print it out in a newsletter format. Believe it or not, there are still some folks out there who don't surf the Internet. Distribute it to your staff, to your neighbors, to your management, to homeowners associations, and to anyone who will listen or read it. Get that message out there and blow that horn loud and often.

Yet More Paper - Postcards, flyers, brochures, and satisfaction surveys (yes, what a pain it is to do those...ick) notifying people of upcoming projects, meetings, and events, asking for the input, managing the conflict, and get this, letting them know what is actually going on with that multi-million-dollar three-year-long road widening project (inside joke) in their front yard. What great concepts...

Public Meetings - Engage your constituents by setting up public involvement meetings, soliciting input every step of the way. Yes, this hurts because you know what is "best," especially if you are an engineer (okay, so maybe that comment was uncalled for), but when these folks tie themselves to a tree that you are trying to remove to install that sidewalk or pedestrian bridge that YOU think they need so badly, that engineering license won't get you anywhere. Get the pain over with early in the process. The longer you leave that bandage on the more it hurts when you rip it off.

Celebrations - Groundbreaking ceremonies, grand openings, project completion celebrations, and related recognitions are a must. Try to tie these events in with things that will interest kids. If you are doing something that is for the community, having the little ones entertained usually results in a successful event. And while you are at it give credit to those citizens, board members, homeowners associations, and even those sidewalk supervisors at all of these events, even if they drove you insane the whole time. These folks can and will consume you on the next project if you do not.

Okay, so those are a few of the obvious things that you may already do, but what are some other things we can do to perhaps stretch the limits of your comfort zones? Well, I have a few simple ideas that may make you think:

Internal Cooperation - These days involvement with every department in your city (or county) is a must. (Now you are saying, "Is this guy nuts or what?") In the development of our departmental strategic plan, our staff decided it is part of our mission to make other departments better. Forget the boundaries that typically go up. I am sure you heard it before: "These are our funds and we can't share them with you, blah, blah, blah, etc." Well, make that sacrifice and you will develop the reputation for being the go-to guy not only in your organization but in your community. Who knows when you might need to call in a favor?

And how is this connecting with your community? By helping those folks out with their events and being a part of the overall team you will be getting positive exposure! When the Police Athletic League needs a coach, do it; when someone needs cooks for a pancake breakfast at the firehouse or a parks event, send your staff to cook. Sure, those other folks get the credit, but don't you work for the same community? Eventually you will be noticed and appreciated for your efforts.

Community Events - Do you go to all of those community events, public meetings, and city council meetings? You should! Show your face everywhere. If your community can put a face with the name, you will become someone that they know, a friend, a neighbor, and someone they will eventually trust and support. If you don't, you are just another bureaucrat eating up their tax dollars. It is your choice what they will say about you: "I pay your salary!" or "That guy Jim really doesn't get paid enough for what he does for our community."

Residency - Do you live in your city? Prior to becoming the Public Works Director I did not live in my city. But when appointed I felt that living here was important, so I sold my beautiful house on the acre out in the country and moved. It is pretty tough to argue the sensitive issues with folks when you don't live in the community you serve. I realize there are exceptions in some more affluent communities since we may not be able to afford to live in some areas, but if you can move into your jurisdiction DO IT! You will see your community from the inside and not from the ivory tower. It goes a long way with folks when you can say, "I live here too!"

Networking - And what about networking? I would bet that most of you network to some degree. You probably know all the contractors and developers in the area, possibly some other public works folks in your area. Or maybe you go to APWA branch or chapter meetings, read the APWA Reporter, use the infoNOW Communities, ask Ann Daniels a question, etc. So if you spend all that time fostering relationships with your peers and business affiliations, where do your constituents get prioritized? Do you spend an equal amount of time networking with them? Well, I am here to tell you that you shouldn't. YOU SHOULD SPEND MORE TIME WITH THEM. The investment will pay you back more than you could possibly imagine.

Homeowners Associations - You know that old saying, "Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer." Well, calling your constituents enemies probably isn't politically correct, but you get the idea. These guys are the folks who toss you hand grenades at city council meetings. Get to know them; attend their meetings, give them the personal attention they crave, and instead of trying to kill you off they will defend you when others try to kill you off. The same points apply to the local Home Builders and Contractors Associations if you have those in your communities.

The Picnic Table - For years I have been going to City Council meetings and noticed the most important "meeting before the meeting" where all of these neighborhood folks would mill around and plot their strategies for their visit to the podium. Well, there was no place to sit outside of the council chambers and I thought, who wants to have the "meeting" standing up? So I bought a few picnic tables and I brought my pizza to the table and I sat there and listened in and eventually began to engage these folks. The result is I get the scoop first-hand and get things done before they hit the podium. It is another step towards becoming that "go-to" guy. It has gotten to the point where these guys give me a laundry list every other Thursday night in lieu of going to the podium. My staff thinks I am crazy but these guys are actually saving us time. They act as a clearing house for their neighborhoods. It reduces the phones calls and the follow-up we would normally have to do. And all of these items are things we would have to address anyway, so what appears to be a special favor is simply us doing what we should be doing anyway and I have all of these "inspectors" working for me for free.

Food - Remember those public involvement meetings I mentioned? Well, I found that feeding people during those meetings actually slows the barrage of abusive comments. While there may not be any statistics to support my theory, I have found that those folks who want to yell at you are usually big eaters, too. So shove a hot dog in their mouth and they can't whine as much, and when your meeting is over you managed to say what you had to say without constant interruptions, they got a free meal, and suddenly you are their best friend. We went so far as to build a large trailer-mounted BBQ grill that we use for these meetings, pancake breakfasts, and departmental events. We even lend the grill to not-for-profit organizations and the local schools for fundraisers in the community so it serves a public use.

Volunteers - Task folks with assignments. I have one former council member who we let place trees in our medians. We worked out the sight triangles ahead of time, but we gave her a set of plans and some stakes and said, "Have at it." Now she is one of our greatest supporters and we task her with other things that actually get done.

Then we have another citizen who has been instrumental in getting us through a rather dicey dredging project. When our staff ran into what seemed to be impossible regulatory obstacles, enter our buddy John. He was able to push buttons that we would otherwise be unable to do with political leaders and legislators. The result is that John, who thought his role in life was to make us crazy, is now a part of our team and lobbies for us in any forum that he possibly can. To show our appreciation he is our "Volunteer of the Year" and was recognized at our annual National Public Works Week Celebration.

Newspaper/Media - How do these folks treat you? Well, they treat me as if I am their friend. Why? Because I am. Don't get me wrongif something goes wrong, I will take that bullet again. But when it goes great I expect them to give me the positive press too. Our organization has a great relationship with the media. We give them the scoop, give them access to info, respond to them promptly, and keep them informed. During a recent project I even wrote the release for them to make sure they got it right. At times they have even printed my responses as a guest editorial.

Neighborhood Cleanup Programs - We have several neighborhood cleanup programs that get us noticed. The most notable is the CLUB. The CLUB or CLean Up Blitz is a proactive improvement program that spends one day in a targeted area in neighborhoods doing a thorough neighborhood cleanup. It is an opportunity for city staff and the neighbors to work together, and to get to know one another, and to pitch in to make a difference. This program addresses everything from filling potholes to crime prevention.

Prior to work being done in a neighborhood, a notification is delivered to the residents notifying them about the CLUB's arrival; signs are posted delineating the boundaries of the target area. A survey of the city properties and rights-of-way in the neighborhood is done a week before work begins to create a checklist of items to be addressed. If there are items that cannot be completed during CLUB day, they are referred to the appropriate city divisions and departments and added to their project schedules. At the end of the CLUB, we all kick back and look at the accomplishments of the team effort and eat lunch together.

Then we have the BEST. The BEST what? BEST is the Beautification Enhancement Strike Team, a team we formed to declare war on litter. These guys keep our city streets clean and act as ambassadors to the community. While cleaning up the city streets they also engage the citizens, distribute information about upcoming events, and promote our award-winning adopt-a-road program.


Logo - We have advertised and promoted our city in many ways over the recent years. We developed a new logo and tagline and we have plastered it all over everything. It is on our vehicles, our clothing, our buildings, on billboards, on street banners, and all sorts of gadgets, widgets, and giveaways, everything short of tattoos on key staff. Shameless self-promotion to let everyone know that Palm Bay is the perfect place to grow, work, play and live. This effort has resulted in community pride never before realized.

Project Signs - Do you advertise and post your projects? We put signs up for all projects, identifying the project name and scope, funding source and cost, duration, council members and our contact info. This lets folks know we are out there and what we are up to. It sometimes results in phone calls, but often they are appreciative of the info that they may not have otherwise gotten.

Median Signs/Public Service Announcements (with a twist) - These are more signs to make the engineers crazy. We place large 4 ft. by 4 ft. (and sometimes 8 ft. by 4 ft.) signs in our medians all over the city letting folks know of upcoming events, council meeting television schedules, public service announcements, and just about anything else we want to let folks know. These are relatively inexpensive and they reach out to thousands of folks daily.

Other Community Outreach Programs:

Holiday Parade - Each year our department participates in our community's holiday parade. In recent years we have built large floats and had our live Public Works band playing holiday songs with a rock twist. It is a chance to see the other side of our staff out there having fun and celebrating with everyone in the community. And yes we really can play those instruments!

National Public Works Week - Each year our department hosts a National Public Works Week Celebration. We provide an opportunity for the community to come out and have fun with our staff. The event includes activities for kids of all ages (and the adults too), educational demonstrations, live entertainment, informational booths, heavy equipment displays, and free food and refreshments. The event is supported by our city council, and our staff volunteers their own time to participate in this event each year, giving up their weekend to give back to the community.

School Career Days - Annually we invite middle school students to spend part of their day with our staff. They are given tours of our department and they are suited up in hard hats and safety vests and escorted throughout our facility where they are shown daily operations in all of the operational areas. They participate in a question-and-answer session, have a snack, are issued a few souvenirs, and leave with a newfound appreciation and knowledge about public works. Maybe one of these kids will turn out to be a public works leader one day.

Charitable Events - We don't do the boot drives like the fire guys, but we do the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and Get Arrested for MDA, provide Thanksgiving dinners for needy families in our community, and participate in payroll deductions for the United Way. We have all been blessed to be a part of a great organization and this is just one way to pay back the community that has treated us all so well.

Okay, so hopefully you find some of this useful and maybe you'll use it too. Sorry there won't be any fancy quote from some famous dead person at the end of this article, but I'll leave you with this:

Remember when all else fails, and it will, your job as a public works superhero is to take the bullet and love every minute of it. You may never get the recognition you deserve. (Who are we kidding, you won't.) The reward is in knowing you made a difference in your community, even if you are the only one who knows it. When you finally make that commitment and connect with your community you will know it...

...and if you are lucky, so will they.

As for me, I have to get on my bike and ride some more to see what is going on around town. You should do the same.

Jim Proce, Your Friendly Neighborhood Public Works Director, can be reached at (321) 953-8996 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment