This is how government worksPosted Wednesday, February 6, 2008, at 9:26 AM
This is how government really works, the nuts and bolts of what governments are supposed to do.
On Monday, Mayor Tom Rist called in key department heads for an 8 a.m. meeting to begin contingency planning for a possible disaster that could occur as early as the end of this week.
Looking ahead to the weather forecast, Rist saw that rain and warming weather were possible. And with more snow piled up all over town than this city has seen in a very long time, Rist wanted to begin planning as early as possible for potential flooding.
The storms the last few weeks have been more like it used to be, a long time ago, around here. But with two 7-year droughts in the previous 15 years, our winters have been fairly dry. The city simply hasn't been able to justify maintaining a large fleet of snow removal equipment. It has only one sander truck for example, whose crews have been working round-the-clock shifts trying to stay ahead of the significant amounts of snow that have fallen in the last three weeks. There's been so much snow that it's pretty much been a losing battle, despite their efforts.
So the snow has piled up. But if it warms up or rains this week, it's going to melt quickly. And with the ground either frozen or saturated, the water is going to just start flowing overland. Every seven inches of snow equals one inch of water, and two inches of water hitting this city in a 24-hour period would constitute the famous FEMA "100-year flood."
So Rist and his people began looking at city maps, identifying areas where flooding has been known to occur, and planning for how to best mitigate the problem.
Storm drains that are frozen over will have to be cleared in the next few days. Snow will have to be removed from gutters so it doesn't dam up the flowing water. Canal water ditches the city maintains will have be cleaned out, the snow removed and hauled off. Drainage ditches to the city's overflow ponds needed to be cleared.
The downtown area was identified as one priority area, as well as the upper reaches of 18th East St. and the area around the golf course, and several other points in town where flooding had been known to occur, or where city crews anticipated it might occur. "I think the people at the (new) jail are going to realize why they're on the FEMA flood plain maps," Rist said.
The mayor took the advice given by his people and authorized the public works department to contract for additional dump trucks to help haul the snow away. Parks and Recreation volunteered equipment and crews to help public works.
They identified locations to haul the snow, eventually deciding that despite the distance it had to be hauled, that dumping it at the old city dump was the best place to avoid creating additional problems "downstream" from other potential dumping sites.
Arrangements were made to try and acquire pallets of sand bags in case they would be needed (requests went out to the base and the county disaster services office).
Within an hour the city had a plan and crews began working to implement it.
That doesn't mean, if Rist's concerns turn out to be justified, that there won't be flooding. But it does mean that the city was already working to deal with it, rather than waiting to act when it actually happened.
That's how government is supposed to work.
* * *
I love a mayor with a sense of humor, who can both take a little criticism and come up with a funny payback, as well.
Last week, I took a tiny shot at the city for the snowy conditions of the streets. Later that day (the day the paper came out), I attended a function to welcome the new police chief to town (I think we're going to like this guy a lot). As I arrived at the police station, Mayor Rist was there to greet me.
"Read your editorial," he said with a stern face and a twinkle in his eye, "and I've got something here for you -- a citation for not shoveling the snow off your sidewalk."
I cracked up. I was, of course, guilty as charged (I'd hurried to work that morning), so I couldn't complain. In fact, it was just a warning, and was done completely in jest (I thnk). But it showed that Tom can give as well as he can take.
I loved it. And, of course, as I relayed the story to others, the most common reaction I got was, "Oh, my goodness, you can get a citation for that? I better get home and shovel my walk!" (Actually, I think in practice they only cite annoying editors).
* * *
As I left Monday's meeting to deal with snow removal, I saw Tom get into Stan Frank's truck (he was going to check on some equipment at Parks and Rec). But the truck was stuck on the ice outside city hall and was just spinning its wheels. I stopped to help push, along with a couple other people, and Tom got out to push as well. As we pushed and rocked, I mentioned under my breath (not wanting another citation), "you could use some sand here."
"Shut up," Tom replied.
* * *
With Tom taking over as mayor, there's been a few tiny but interesting changes at city hall.
Tom's previous job meant he had to get up early to go to work. His work habits haven't changed. He's often at city hall by 6:30 a.m. and considers it one of his jobs to make the coffee for everyone else who will be arriving later. It's not unusual for him to be there after 5 p.m., as well. He's willing to put in long hours.
And he's got a computer on his desk. McNeal wouldn't (or couldn't) use one. Tom complained that he's not getting any e-mails. "I guess people aren't used to doing it, yet," he said. He'll rue the day he said that, but it's an example of how he wants to keep lines of communication as open and varied as possible.
Every mayor has a different style, but at first blush it looks like Tom is going to be one of those blue collar roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work types. I think that's something that will be a benefit to all of us in the long run.
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