Can a Non-Engineer Public Works Director Make Engineering Decisions?

Over the last few days I’ve been once again attending the Illinois Public Service Institute, a three-year training program for public works professionals in Illinois. Last year, I wrote a post about the incredible experience I had in my second year, and over the next few days or month, I am hoping to write a few articles about what I’ve learned this year.

The first topic I wanted to touch on in this short post came up during a discussion that occurred at my table while we were working on an assignment. Another engineer brought up the following scenario which caused me to wonder about how this should be handled:

A licensed, staff engineer develops a design for a set of plans that eventually he or she will stamp with their license. Their direct supervisor, the city engineer, who is also a licensed engineer, disagrees with the design and proposes a different design approach. Because the two engineers cannot come to an agreement, they take both design ideas to the city engineer’s supervisor who is the director of public works and who is not an engineer and who does not have any engineering training. Both engineers present their designs then allow the director to choose which one will be used for the plans.

I do realize with both engineers being licensed, most likely both designs are acceptable. However, if the decision is entirely based on the engineering merits of the design, how is someone who has no background or training supposed to be capable of making that decision, and is it ethical or professional to be doing so?
Also, I wondered does it make a difference if the staff engineer is stamping/signing the plans? I would think ultimately the city engineer, if an appointed official for the city, is responsible for the department’s designs, but the staff engineer seems to carry the professional liability for the design if he or she is stamping the plans.

I was curious what other engineers would think of this so would be very interested in hearing opinions or ideas or past experiences or policies related to this scenario.


Copyright and Consultant Exhibits

Copyright/Mapping ExampleToday another question came up in our ongoing discussions about copyright and government. So I thought I'd post the scenario and question and see how others viewed this. It seems that many counties, at least in Illinois, arrange for the production of aerials and the creation of data such as parcel information, roadway and water features, and other infrastructure. They then allow other governmental agencies to use this information. Often this permission is granted through agreements. Sometimes it is offered for free and sometimes at an annual cost. 

While much of this information is used by other governmental agencies like cities on a daily basis as the foundation for their GIS, occasionally a city might share this information with an outside consultant for the purpose of having exhibits or reports prepared. This is allowed through their agreement with the county because the use is for the purposes allowed in the agreement. However, if the governmental agency chooses not to include an ownership clause allowing them to retain all rights to the work created by the consultant, the company preparing the exhibits or reports will often attach a lengthy copyright and license document indicating the exhibit or report is covered under a copyright claimed by them. So the governmental agency cannot use the exhibit or report in any way that lies outside the uses specified under the consultant's copyright.

The question is, does the consultant have the right to copyright work they created using copyrighted material that they themselves had been granted no direct agreement or permission to use from the original owner of the work? Another but similar question is what if the city had paid a consultant to create an exhibit and included in the agreement a statement that allowed them to take ownership of the copyright upon final payment. So now the city owns the copyright to that exhibit. Let's say for some reason, the city wants to use that exhibit as a foundation for another exhibit, and they hire another consultant to create it. They do not release their original copyright, but do allow the consultant to use the exhibit to create a new one for them. However in this case they do not include any language retaining ownership of the final product. Does the consultant have the legal right to copyright the new exhibit when they have not been given permission to do anything other than modify the original work for their client? If I am the consultant, is all that I own in the  map above the work below?

Copyright/Mapping Example 2

I don't think too many people have addressed these two questions because it has really only become an issue with the increased use of digital tools. And I believe most people, myself included, had thought all government documents are in the public domain. However, we cannot assume this – by law, only federal documents are in the public domain. States and cities do have the right to copyright their work unless they have passed laws that state otherwise. And we all know you don't have to indicate a copyright – in the U.S. it is automatically created when you create a work. I'd be very interested in hearing any opinions, policies, or how governmental agencies and consultants are handling this issue.

(Note: the actual underlying map used in the example above is in the public domain, but the questions should be considered as if it was copyrighted and given to me to be used to create an exhibit for a proposed well location.)


Engineering Infographics

Infographics are large sized, graphic-filled images used to convey sometimes complex ideas or information. Over the last year or so they seem to have risen in popularity and have been produced and shared by a wide variety of industries. So it was only a matter of time before we started finding engineering-related infographics. The one below was created by and presents several engineering achievements:

How Did They Do That?
Source: Best Online Engineering Degree

Here's a nice one from the University of Singapore that simply shows the answer to a common question from students:


If you want to try to make your own infographic, there are sites listed at the end of this post to get you started. You can try making an infographic to showcase your product, inform citizens about a project or new ordinance, or just convey some important information or facts to the public. If you make one, we'd love to see it – send it in and we'll share it on our blog.



Plan Holder/Bidder List – To Share or Not to Share

Water Main Installation

We currently have a project out to bid for the installation of about a quarter mile of 10-inch water main. As usual, after we release the notification to bidders, we begin receiving requests from companies asking for a list of bidders or plan holders. Our city's policy is to not release this list until after the bid opening because of the potential of affecting bid prices. For example, a potential bidder could submit a different bid based on who the competition is and how many other companies have picked up plans.

With the relatively new FOIA laws in Illinois, we've had companies trying to claim the information as a FOIA request. However, we have been denying the request under the following exemption stated in this law:

(h) Proposals and bids for any contract, grant, or  agreement, including information which if it were disclosed would frustrate procurement or give an advantage to any person proposing to enter into a contractor agreement with the body, until an award or final selection is made. Information prepared by or for the body in preparation of a bid solicitation shall be exempt until an award or final selection is made.

We received a request the other day from a company outside of Illinois and sent them our standard denial letter based on this exemption. They ended up sending a letter to the State of Illinois arguing that we should release the information because they want to submit bids as a subcontractor and the information would encourage a more competitive bid. There are several issues with this.

  • First and most importantly, we believe we are exempt from releasing it, although the final decision will now rest with the State.
  • Next, if the State determines we must release the information, this would become a FOIA request for a commercial purpose which the company failed to mention and by failing to do so violated the law. However if the State determines we must release the information and if the company ends up properly requesting the information, we would have 21 days to respond since it is a request for a commercial purpose which means they would receive the information after the bid opening rendering it useless for their purpose.
  • Finally, the project involves no work that would require the type of services they appear to offer. It would be like bidding out a road resurfacing project and a supplier of excavators wanting to get a list of bidders to give them prices on new equipment. There's just no specific pay item for that work. So I am not even sure how giving a heavy equipment sales company a list of bidders for a specific project that has no specialty items helps lower our cost.

The end result is a waste of time for everyone. Where I worked before, I ended up not being able to even send out lists because we offered proposal materials online so we would not have known who downloaded them. And if we continue to have issues with this, we would probably end up choosing to do the same or just not keep a list. But I was wondering how other agencies are handling these requests, if others believe releasing the lists can affect the bids, and if other states require agencies to release the information prior to opening of the bid.


UPDATE: 7/27/2012

We're posting below a comment we recently received for this article. The reason we're tagging it onto the end of the article is that we've set up posts so the ability to comment is turned off after several weeks to prevent spammers from posting on old articles. So the commenter was unable to post it in the normal manner. Because we definitely wanted readers to see valuable comments in the context of the original post, we thought we'd just add it to the end.


Comment from Cassie Dandridge Selleck

I just wanted to respond to the blog post titled "To Share or Not to Share". I am a vendor, specifically for rentals of under bridge access equipment. While I completely understand how time-consuming it would be to field phone calls requesting bidders or plan holders lists, I wanted to just throw our perspective in there. First of all, I have never CALLED for a list. I agree with your blogger that this is asking someone else to do my job. I also get it that some vendors are not this considerate. But as for posting the list of bidders on your web page, I just can't see where this is a negative, despite the concern for price-fixing. Our rates are our rates. They don't change for anyone unless there are extenuating circumstances. Being able to get our rental rates to the estimators bidding the jobs is crucial to getting the best rate possible for all. Anyone who is going to cheat or inflate prices is going to figure out a way to do that, and it is just never a good business plan. We are a small company trying to make it in a big market. If we are going to keep our RATES low, we have to keep our COSTS low. Advertising is expensive, so we use plan holders lists to update our database and contact contractors directly to let them know we exist. If they need us, they contact us and we provide a quote. This is the cheapest, most effective way to do this and it has worked well. None of the issues posted by the blogger have ever been a part of our business strategy. We just want to get the word out to the companies bidding jobs that we are here to provide additional services they need.  When estimators are trying to get these bids in, they are scrambling to get all the information, too. It just makes sense that the public works departments would be trying to help get the best information and best quotes possible by posting who is bidding what jobs. Just a thought.


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 21

Day 21

This morning, I started out the day going through emails – after getting them down to a more managable level, I want to try to keep it that way. I did summarize some of  the information regarding the SSA we are looking into and sent it out to other staff members. And then I reviewed the Kane County's Traffic Impact Fee proposal and related documents. A group of us then met later in the morning to discuss this topic.

Right after that meeting, our same group had another meeting to discuss the plan we have been working on that explores how best to develop what will someday be the southeast corner of our city. Right now this area is primarily farm land and rural homesteads with a small number of commercial businesses. It's bee interesting and challenging to plan for and determine the best way to serve this area with infrastructure and the possible land uses.

During most of the afternoon our engineering staff met with the other engineering staff from neighboring communities. We usually meet like this once a month to discuss the projects, ideas, and challenges we are having. Today some topics included drainage (a popular one that is often discussed), road projects, and public education.

Later in the day, I reviewed the legal agreement our attorney prepared related to the parking lot we are planning to construct in the downtown.