First Timers in retrospect

Jason E. Cosby
Director of Public Works
City of Lancaster, Texas

Are you working on building your technical and skill base? Are you currently in, or preparing for, a leadership role in your organization? Are you seeking ideas about projects and success in our changing workforce? Is this your first APWA Congress?

These are good reasons to attend the First Timers Meeting at Congress!

Let me explain why the First Timers Meeting was beneficial for me. After joining APWA in April 1999 and attending the Texas Chapter's State Conference, I wanted to get involved and become a more "proactive" member. I attended Congress in Denver, Colorado and attended the First Timers meeting, providing me the opportunity to understand Congress sessions in particular and APWA as a whole. During the meeting, I had a chance to meet board members, fellow chapter members and, of course, the other professionals and associates in the field from other states.

There was a certain irony because I was asked to write about my experience, but I also wanted to know the origin of the First Timers Meeting. I asked a colleague and former Diversity Committee member, Steve Masters, Utilities/Maintenance Administrator for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, to provide me with insight. He said, "This session is enlightening to the people attending the conference, provides a hospitable environment, and allows the conference goers to feel welcomed."

From our conversation, Mr. Masters mentioned that the founder of this session was Herb Fain. I contacted Mr. Fain, Deputy Director of Public Works for the City of Houston, who informed me of his role with the First Timers Meeting. He stated, "I was the chairperson of the committee, but the idea and founder of the First Timers Meeting was Ann Burnett." Ms. Burnett is retired as Governmental Liaison from Pacific Bell, and is an active member of APWA at the local, state, and national levels. She is her local chapter's representative to the House of Delegates, Diversity Liaison Chair, and a member of the committee for the 2003 Congress in San Diego, California. She also serves on the National Governmental Affairs and Nominating Committees.

Ms. Burnett stated that she received this idea from discussion with her chapter board members in 1995. After she brought the suggestion back to the Diversity Committee (at that time, it was called the "Council on Equal Opportunity") and to Kaye Sullivan, APWA Deputy Director, the roots of the First Timers Meeting started to spread. Ms. Sullivan was instrumental in the structure and the continuation of this meeting with the Diversity Committee.

Below are highlights from an interview I conducted with Mr. Fain and Ms. Burnett.

JC: As chairperson, what did you think about Ms. Burnett's idea?

Fain: I believed she had an excellent idea. The Diversity Committee encourages every member of APWA to contribute their time and talent to the association. I believed Ms. Burnett's recommendation did just that.

JC: As chairperson, what inspired you to pursue this idea?

Fain: New members are sometimes overwhelmed by their first Congress. By having an orientation meeting with new members, they could benefit by meeting APWA staff and members from other regions in the country. They would also learn the organization's structure and identify committees of interest. We believe this offered a tremendous opportunity for growth and professional development for both new and long-term members.

Burnett: As a member of the Diversity Task Force, I was trying to get people involved nationally. This project was needed because very few people knew about the structure and/or hierarchy of the organization, so consequently they did not know how to get involved. One of the board members in my local chapter-San Diego and Imperial Counties-asked what training, overview, or information you can get when attending your first Congress. As in previous years, it was the Committee's charge to stay in the forefront of all issues, programs, and projects that would benefit APWA members.

Although it was sometimes difficult for us to get funding, in 1996, with the support and assistance of Kaye Sullivan, we decided to introduce this project known as the First Timers Meeting. I collaborated with Ms. Sullivan and the Committee to set up the agenda. I went back to my chapter and asked what they wanted to see at a conference. Some of the criteria included how to get involved; meeting the president, board members and directors; and how to get information from the exhibitors.

JC: What kind of response did you get from implementing this idea?

Fain: We had enthusiastic support from APWA staff and members in the association. Everyone recognized the value of Ms. Burnett's recommendation. Attendance at the new members' meeting has increased every year.

Burnett: I received a very positive response from my local chapter and national board. I believe they were surprised by the response and attendance we received from the "First Timers" session-we had over 90 attendees that first year.

JC: Why do you think this meeting should continue to be implemented?

Fain: The meeting is important because it gives valuable information about APWA to both new and long-term members. The meeting should be continued because it helps new members become effective by meeting APWA staff members; it enhances their professional development by participation in association activities; members who are involved with the association are more likely to stay involved in APWA; members who are involved with the association are more likely to encourage others to join APWA; and the First Timers Meetings can help increase attendance at APWA's annual Congress.

Burnett: It speaks for itself; we are getting more and more attendance every year. With the newer clientele and membership, this is an opportunity for new members to meet the president, other board members, and staff; get clues on how to benefit the most by attending Congress; receive the most up-to-date information on issues; and, one of the most important aspects, get the most out of the networking opportunities.

JC: Are there any other people on the committee who contributed to this idea and should they be recognized?

Fain: First, as chairperson, I am given too much credit. The success of these meetings is due to the power of a good idea. The moment Ms. Burnett proposed a new members meeting open to everyone in APWA, everyone said, "Good idea." The meeting would not just be a social session, but a briefing on important information. The Committee worked hard to make the recommendation a success and so did the APWA staff and membership. They did the work and they deserve the recognition for the success of these meetings.

Burnett: All of the members of the Diversity Task Force who were involved at the time we initiated this session. The Diversity Task Force that worked on the original First Timers Meeting was George Rowe, Chair; Ann Burnett; Teree Caldwell-Johnson; Brenda D. Eighmey; Herbert S. Fain, Jr., and Alice Stoner. Mr. Fain was chair of the Committee the next year, but he chaired the original First Timers Meeting.

After the 2000 Congress in Louisville, Kentucky, an e-mail was sent to APWA by Dave Allison, Applications Engineering Manager with Plastic Pipe Institute, Incorporated, reading, "I thought the First Timers Meeting was very well done. It provided me with some ideas to use in our organization activities at our meetings. As a potential exhibitor for next year's Congress, I really appreciated the way in which the Exposition was pitched to the attendees. Karen Sussman was a true delight and helped make everyone feel welcome."

Finally, we are asking the chapters to begin a First Timers session at their state and local conferences. At each session, board members and other associates can introduce themselves and welcome the "First Timers." In addition, the First Timers should be invited to the many committee meetings to gain their involvement.

The First Timers Meeting at the Philadelphia Congress will be held Sunday, September 9, from 8:00-9:30 a.m. Jason Cosby can be reached at 972-227-6075 or at