Geneva’s Great Land Adventure

Geneva Land AdventureSeveral months ago, I read some blog posts about frustration with Gov 2.0 not doing enough and a few other posts with offers from people interested in working for free for experience. The two seemingly unrelated topics got me wondering: How could our city use Gov 2.0 to offer job opportunities to people just looking for experience and also offer opportunities to citizens interested in participating in government? My thoughts drifted to the projects I’m working on at my job. And I wondered if our city could reach out to these people with the use of Gov 2.0 tools to help us complete some of our projects. One particular project rose above the others as a perfect candidate – the creation of a database documenting all properties in which the city holds some interest. It seemed possible because all the research could be done online by anyone with a connection to the Internet.

Fortunately, my supervisor and city administrator were fully supportive of implementing this idea. And even better, an intern working for us who is a public administration graduate student was able to partner with us to set it all up. While we were planning the project, I noticed a post on GovLoop written by Dave Briggs: The need for micro-participation. It seemed to discuss exactly what we were hoping to do. His post and support of the idea of micro-volunteering inspired me to finish setting up the project. After it was complete, we took some time evaluating it. After getting some great input from everyone, the project became an adventure of discovery with a Viking theme complete with a Viking figure donated by our wastewater division staff. Now anyone can join us on a discovery of property. And people can even earn titles and rewards as they successfully complete documentation of areas. You can check out the site here: The Geneva Land Adventure.

While we realize this approach has been used before to crowdsource genealogy databases, we’re not sure if other local governments have offered similar opportunities for micro-participation. We would be interested in hearing from others who might be aware of similar examples of participation or information about property management systems already in place. And we would love to hear comments or suggestions for improving the project and would love it even more if you signed up and participated in our adventure! (And because property management in local government is not a widely discussed or known topic, I offer a little background below.)



People are usually surprised to discover that local governments have a significant number of interests in real estate or property. These property rights can be held in the form of deeds, dedications, easements, rights of way, or licenses. And, depending on a government agency’s size, the number of documents conveying these rights can range from hundreds to thousands.

What also surprises people is that agencies most likely do not have a property database in place to document and manage the property rights associated with these documents. When I started working at the city of LaSalle in 1993, I figured they didn’t have this in place because they were somewhat of a small community with a population of about 9700. So I got to work building the database and putting a management system in place. By the time I left in 2009, I had discovered about 300+ properties in which the city had some ownership right. What I’ve since realized from talking to others in government is that many cities lack a property database.

Based on my experience in LaSalle, I have developed a process of building the database and putting in place a management system. One of the first steps is to discover all the documents in which an agency has property rights. But this task can take significant time. Since starting a new job with the city of Geneva two years ago, I’ve been working on setting up the system here. Fortunately we already have most of the property held by deeds in a database created by the county tax assessor. But this information needs to be verified and all the other documents covering easements, licenses, dedications, etc. need to be discovered.

Some might wonder if it’s so much work, why bother. Well, in government, ownership and property rights come up frequently throughout the day. Most activities that go on in local government, particularly in public works or property maintenance, involve the need to know what can be done where. If a database does not exist, research must be done each time a question about rights or ownership comes up. With a completed database and GIS, the answers are much more readily available. There are other benefits, but to keep it brief, the bottom line is having the database saves time and money which is always a good thing to achieve in government.







Photocopiers & Depositions

Today I followed a link Governing had posted in a story. This link ( led me to what appeared to be an excerpt from a deposition where an attorney was questioning an employee who seems to have worked in the recorder’s office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The proceeding is somewhat interesting because it is a good example of what can often happen in a deposition. One attorney is trying to get someone to answer or confirm their question. Because the respondent is not 100% sure of exactly what the questioning attorney means, he asks for qualification. The attorney asking the question does not really want to qualify his answer at first, but out of frustration eventually does. And then the respondent answers the question. It may seem cumbersome and humorous to some, but a deposition is not a casual conversation. The resulting document is based on a sworn legal statement.

I probably would have answered in a very similar manner as the person responding. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone ask to “photocopy” something so would have also asked for a clarification. But apparently the majority of people commenting would be much more willing to be informal and loose with their answers. They condemn the respondent in this exchange and feel he should have answered as if they were having the conversation in the diner down the street. And this is what the questioning attorney counts on. However, if you have actually ever gone through a deposition, most likely your attorney has told you that you need to be very careful in your answers. You are of course sworn to tell the truth. So you need to be very sure of your answers. You cannot in any way assume anything. You only answer exactly what was asked and do not offer additional information. If you are uncertain in any way about the question, you are supposed to ask for clarification. If you really don’t know something you are not to suggest or try to answer – you are supposed to simply say “I don’t know” or if you can’t remember, you are to answer, “I don’t remember.”

I had to do this during a particularly intense deposition that lasted about 3 or 4 hours with about 8 attorneys all asking me questions. The attorney representing the party with a lawsuit against our city kept asking me things that I really could not remember so that is exactly the answer I gave. “I don’t remember.” I was not going to try to come up with something I wasn’t sure about just to give a response. However, this particular attorney eventually got so frustrated, he also tried a similar tactic to the one in this transcript by asking me if I had something wrong with me because I could not remember things.  He did eventually realize that one critical thing I did remember was the name of the company that installed the object that allegedly led to the death of his client – a company he had failed to discover and name in the lawsuit. Our city of course was dropped from the suit because we truly had nothing to do with the case and no involvement other than it happened in our city.

The key is if a government body is named in a lawsuit and an employee must be questioned, they are not obligated nor expected to be nice to the questioning attorney. He is not their friend, nor are they obligated to help him win his case. The person questioned is under oath and sworn to tell the truth. If that person needs clarification to do so, who is anyone else to question their responses? I would rather have my government representative answer as this person did being careful and sure of their answers.  To do otherwise and be irresponsible and casual is absolutely not serving the public good.


What It’s Really Like to Work for Government

This week I came to the realization that the majority of people have a totally wrong view of what it’s like to work for government. I guess having worked in government for so long now, I take for granted all the rules, regulations, oversight, and general culture in the workplace. And I assumed with all the attention we get as government employees that citizens were also aware of our work environment. But now I know that people in general really have limited knowledge about how it is to work for government. Thinking back, I realized I was also not aware of all this when I first started in the public sector. So I figured I would try to do my best to open a little window in the world of government workers. Most of these lessons I am sharing have developed over the course of my 30-year career, and as you will see, many of these lessons were learned the hard way.

Copies of all of our correspondence including emails can be requested by the public
With all the talk of FOIA and transparency, I figured everyone knew this. But now I know that there are people who believe government employees still have some degree of privacy. We do not. We work as if everything we write could end up on the front page of the newspaper because it can. And those employees who do not figure that out risk finding out the hard way.

How we write those emails is subject to public criticism and reprimand
Because our correspondence is open to public scrutiny, it only makes sense that what we write can end up critiqued by anyone. Therefore, we learn to be very careful in how we phrase things. I learned this the hard way many years ago by responding to someone I knew well who emailed me about a work-related issue. Because we knew each other well, I responded in an informal, yet still appropriate, manner. An alderman ended up seeing my response, and at a council meeting he publicly reprimanded me for my casual language.

Which brings up the fact that we can be publicly ridiculed and reprimanded at whim
As my example above shows, particularly those of us who are appointed, are subject to public criticism at the whim of elected officials. I also found this out the hard way, again many years ago, after requiring a contractor to submit a bond in order to drive multiple heavy loads on a rural road that was definitely not designed for it. That contractor  refused and complained about my requirement to the local developer to whom he was hauling the material. That developer complained to an alderman. Next thing I know, I am publicly reprimanded by an official council vote at a meeting. And all that for doing my job and looking out for the best interests of the public.

People take pictures of us during the day
Most of us are aware that this can happen, but even so, many times we end up in trouble because of it even though we have done nothing wrong. I once saw a photo online of a city van (can’t remember the city) parked at a retail store on a weekend. Based on the comments, it was obvious the public’s first thought was that the city employee was using the city van to shop at a store on the weekend. As a city employee, my first thought was the city had to have someone go out on overtime to answer a service call at that store for something like a sewer backup or water problem. The lesson here is that even though we are working somewhere legitimately, a picture can certainly be taken the wrong way.

We are never off the clock
My dad was a service manager at a Buick garage, so I know from his experience this is common to more than just government workers. But I think the difference is that my dad had a better chance convincing someone to contact him during working hours. Government workers are perceived many times as always being on the clock. And what I have found is that most of us also perceive ourselves in this way. Whether it is responding to a problem someone brings up at the grocery store or taking the time to stop and check out a problem we see on the road over the weekend, we have a hard time taking off our “city hat.”

The other problem with this is that while many people can take a 10 minute break during the day, if we stop somewhere for a few minutes to get a water or soda or use the restroom, we are perceived as lazy and not working. And someone might take our picture!

People yell at us and expect us to be silent and respectful in return
People working in government hear complaints on a regular basis, and we view this as a normal part of our job. Much like others working in the service industry, we are here to help and serve people in our community who have problems so complaints or questions or concerns are expected. We would rather have people call with a complaint than be worried and not call. However, there are people who feel because their taxes pay a portion of our salary that they can be totally abusive, and we are out of line if we do not quietly sit and listen.  And everyone working in local government has heard the “You have to do what I say because I pay your salary.”

We have to be ready to justify everything we do in a deposition
Cities get sued a lot. After sitting through several depositions for lawsuits – fortunately for issues not related to work for which I was responsible – I have gotten to the point that each time I make a decision, I imagine myself justifying it to a room of attorneys. I try to imagine every angle they could take with my decision. And only after I feel I have carefully considered every angle and still believe it is in the public’s best interest and meets the law, do I proceed.

We work in conservative surroundings with few special amenities
The public does usually support and take pride in a nice city hall, but there is still a limit on the amenities allowed in our work environment. Government work places could never have the same type of benefits enjoyed by private business such as work-out rooms, saunas, special coffee and beverage machines, lunch and break areas, sports facilities, etc. It would be considered completely unacceptable.

Where we shop is subject to review and criticism
This condition under which some of us work might not be true for everyone. From my experience it is more likely to be found in a smaller community. The reason this happens is because people feel they pay our salaries. So in return, we should only buy from businesses in our community, even for our personal purchases, regardless of cost. Knowing this, I did try at my last job to buy as much as possible from businesses in our city.

But when we built our own house, we bought from businesses in our city and also from those in neighboring cities. We just could not afford to do otherwise, and not all the items we needed or wanted were sold in our city. The home improvement store owner/employees in our city complained to the mayor and felt we were wrong to give the sales tax to other cities. What they did not realize was because of where our home was built, we were not paying sales tax anyway. But had they figured this out, I am not sure it would have lessened their frustration that we purchased outside the city nor stopped them from complaining about me to my supervisor.

All of our income and other benefits are subject to public scrutiny and criticism
Because we are paid by public funds, the amount of our income, terms of our benefits, and pensions amounts can be obtained by the public. And as many have recently witnessed, this information can often end up the subject of lengthy and very public discussions or become a pawn in the political arena.

Everything we do has to be done within the constraints of numerous rules, policies, regulations, and laws
So many times people contact us wanting us to do something that they perceive is a simple task. And many times it does appear to be so. But what people do not realize is that we now operate under a load of regulations, rules, policies, and laws all passed by elected officials to protect the public interest. So tasks that appear to be simple usually end up complicated and take a long time as we ensure we are not violating any of these conditions.

There are many other conditions under which we work, but I will stop there with the thought that those are probably the most obvious ones people might not have known about. Certainly, I do not intend to give the impression these conditions are negative, wrong, or should be changed – they just are part of the job. If someone cannot accept working within this environment, then they do not stay in government. For those of us who do stay, we do accept and understand the environment and are thankful we have been given an opportunity to work building and maintaining our communities. If you’re a government worker, feel free to share work conditions you think might not be obvious to those working in the private sector.


A CCDD Update – February 2011

Background information for those just wandering into this legislative disaster:

Last year, some of our Illinois legislators passed a law to regulate and impose a fee on anyone trying to dump dirt in a hole. At least that's the way it started out. As you will see from this update, the IEPA has worked to amend the requirements of the law.

The bill started out as an Electronic Recycling bill but was soon changed to regulate the dumping of soil from a construction site. No one working in the industry seemed to be aware of it until a day or so after Governor Quinn signed it into law. This was when contractors began calling inspectors on their jobs asking the owner's professional engineer to sign the form that was now required to dump any load of dirt.

Because of the uproar and confusion over this law, the IEPA had a few meetings to try to find out what all the fuss was about. The meetings were only open to a select few, and from talking to those who did attend, it appears no further guidance or information was obtained from the sessions. Then, winter hit, and construction shut down.

And now the update:

Anyway, what we have all been wondering is, what's the current status?

First of all, we need to understand they are really still working through the formal rules. It appears the official rules will not be decided until next year even though we can be charged with a felony if they feel we haven't complied. So the following information, from what I understand, is the best we will get until they figure out what the law they passed really means.

Next, I heard through the grapevine (meaning this is totally unverified) that the aggregate industry was behind this. They supposedly wanted to minimize their liability in receiving construction material.

It also appears IDOT moved quickly to sign an intergovernmental agreement with the IEPA establishing their obligations. IDOT was obviously affected dramatically by this law since it immediately went into effect in the middle of the construction season. With millions of dollars of construction projects at stake, IDOT could not wait around for two years for everyone else to figure out what was really going on.

For the rest of us, there are now two levels of certification. If soil is obtained from an area that is historically considered to be residential, the Source Site Certification by Owner or Operator LPC-662 form must be filled out. This does NOT need to be signed by a professional engineer.

If soil is obtained from a commercial/industrial area, but is uncontaminated, the Uncontaminated Soil Certification by Licensed Professional Engineer LPC-663 form must be filled out. This form MUST be signed by a professional engineer. And of course not all of us who have PE licenses are comfortable with signing this based on our expertise. So many are hiring engineers with a background in soil contamination to sign for their projects.

And I guess there is still no official decision on whether moving dirt on the same jobsite from one hole to another is a problem. Here is the information on the IEPA website:

How does this apply at the "ground" level?

The advice I heard so far from other engineers is to create a map of your city that is broken into two areas: one colored for residential and one colored for commercial/industrial. For public works departments, crews can then use this map to figure out what form to use for the material they excavate and need to dump. One idea is to create separate piles for residential and commercial/industrial. Then when the piles need to be hauled out and dumped, the proper form can be filled out and signed if necessary. Some cities are hiring engineers to analyze the commercial/industrial pile and then sign the form if found to be uncontaminated. If there is contamination, the pile is hauled to a special waste site.

The other idea is to just haul all material from a commercial/industrial site straight to a transfer station. Then the station is responsible for disposing of the material.

For projects, many are talking about having the residential form filled out and placed in the proposal documents for residential areas. For commercial/industrial areas, an engineer has to be hired during design to analyze the area and sign the form if necessary. This form is also included in the proposal. Also, provisions must be in the proposal for disposal of contaminated soil if found. And because a load that is certified to be uncontaminated can later be turned away, there must be provisions for who is responsible for disposing of that load. Because the soil from my project might be ok, but the contractor could go pick up a contaminated load and come back and try to tell me that was my soil. Now we have to pay for its disposal at a special waste site. And how am I to know? This is one area where it just makes everything that much more confusing and difficult to manage.

Some final tips:

Make sure you separate the pavement material from the soil. I was told having pavement material mixed in the soil will make it contaminated.

Also, tell the crews on the jobsite NOT to throw paint cans into the loads. This is a very typical practice on construction sites. But your clean load will come up contaminated at the dump site if this is done.

And finally, make sure you do your own research and talk to your attorney before deciding your process because no one still seems to know what is really going on. Feel free to post your own comments or experiences dealing with this law.


Adding Augmented Reality to Your Zoning Ordinance

Augmented reality holds promise and opportunity for the public works industry. With the development of this technology through efforts like the Smart Vidente Project and the recent release of development tools by Layar, we are moving closer to actual implementation on the job. And over the next few months, I plan to try to set up some layers for work using the Layar service. So I was discussing this with another engineer at work and trying to come up with some ideas to try out. We  thought about setting up some virtual notifications programmed to pop up when we approach certain properties in the city. These notifications could alert us to drainage issues, special structures in the area, and other information in which we would be interested. But as we imagined this future of virtual objects left waiting to be discovered, the other engineer came up with a brilliant question. He wondered if anyone could set out virtual objects like this, what would prevent the world from becoming a virtual junkyard.

DragonHe had an excellent point. Right now the technology is so new, we don’t yet have this problem. If I walk through out city today with the Layar app on my smart phone, there is a good chance I will see no virtual objects. But once the technology becomes ubiquitous, we could walk through our cities looking for something with our augmented reality app and find ourselves bombarded by virtual junk. This virtual junk would also detract from augmented reality uses for wayfinding and utility location. And what could be worse is that people could leave virtual junk on our private property. Maybe someone gets upset with someone else and decides to leave a virtual sign with some not-so-nice wording on that person’s lawn. So there will probably come a day when there will need to be some regulation defining where virtual objects can be placed. But once you start considering this and how it fits into our current system of governance and regulations, it becomes quite an intriguing discussion. Local government regulates and permits placement of objects in the right of way, so should this permitting be extended to virtual objects placed in the right of way? And who should have the authority to regulate what is placed on private property?

Developing the framework for regulating augmented reality in public and private spaces will take some thoughtful consideration and time. But setting this up now will make it that much easier when we get the first call from one of our citizens complaining because someone put a virtual, 20-foot pink dragon breathing fire on their property.


100-year-old Experiment in Concrete

@PCA_NECSA TweetToday I noticed this Tweet by @PCA_NECSA pointing to an article about a 100-year study about concrete started in 1910 by Owen Withey. This research took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a school well-known for its engineering programs. And while there are concrete-related studies going on at universities all over the world, what is interesting to me about this one is the time span over which it was conducted. How many people are willing to start and nurture a project knowing with full certainty they will not be alive when it is finished? And knowing they have to trust others to ensure a successful completion? But what also interests me about this is the parallel I see between this and what people working in public works and governments do every day.

Each of us working in government is tasked with carrying on a multitude of “projects” that support the ultimate project of building and sustaining a community. For most of us, our projects began long before we were born. Outside the U.S., government workers are carrying on from many centuries of prior work. It can be humbling when you stop to think how each of us is just one person in a moment of time of the overall “experiment.” But understanding our roles is also what should provide the motivation and sense of responsibility and dedication to our work. And, like those before us, we must be ready to begin and manage projects that we know we may never see finished. This project at the University of Wisconsin provides not only good information about concrete performance, but also serves as a great example of the importance of working for the public good rather than working just for individual reward.

Here’s a video for those who are interested in learning more about the concrete study: