Miller on city’s public works department
Robert Miller was recently named public works director for the city of Jackson. Miller has a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Louisville and a master’s in business administration from Indiana University. He previously served as deputy director of the sewerage and water board in New Orleans, and as vice president and treasurer of Municipal Financial Services in Louisville, Ky. He recently spoke with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his new role.
How are things going since being appointed? It seems like you’ve hit the ground running, based on last week’s council agenda.
“Most of the workload on (last) week’s city council agenda was initiated by my coworkers prior to my arrival. I have particularly enjoyed going out in the evenings to attend neighborhood association meetings. The neighborhood association presidents are really engaged in making their neighborhoods great places to live, and the people that attend the meetings are thoughtful and conscientious. Being director of public works means being available to citizens and the best place to do that is at their association meetings.”
I know you’re still new on the job, but what are your plans for public works?
“I have eight areas of responsibilities in the department: provide safe drinking water to everyone in Jackson; collect and treat wastewater for the safe return to the environment; manage storm water flows to protect people and property from flooding; build and maintain streets for safe travels; collect and dispose solid waste; operate and maintain community facilities and city vehicles for safe and effective operations; provide accurate and timely bills for water and sewer services; (and) provide information to citizens and businesses about community infrastructure.
“I want to help make Jackson a great place to live, work and play. My priorities for making this happen are based upon the areas with the most significant risks – where there are the largest gaps between where we are where we need to be. And unfortunately that starts with the deficiencies in our wastewater system (and) how we collect and treat sewage.”
What is your number one priority when it comes to addressing Jackson’s infrastructure needs?
Managing public infrastructure is akin to owning an automobile. You make the initial investment, you operate and maintain that investment to get the maximum useful life out of that investment, and you eventually replace the investment. Hardly any of us run our automobiles until they fail us and leave us stranded on the road … Unfortunately, though, it appears that some of our public infrastructure has been ‘run to failure.’ We need to adopt an approach to asset management that allows us to own and operate our public infrastructure so that we can get the maximum life and value out of our investments.
How will you achieve making that priority a success?
In two words: teach and lead. There is a science to managing public works. This science is learned through education and experience, and this science is passed along by teaching. One of the number one duties of an executive is to know good business practices and instill them in (his or her) employees. There is also an art to leading people. They want to be led by someone who knows where to go, how to get there, and how to behave in an honorable manner along the way.”
Again, I only know you’ve been with the department for a few weeks now, but what is the number one resource the department is lacking, but needs to achieve its mission?
“Let me get back to you on that. I am not going to claim anything is lacking until I am persuaded that we are doing everything we can with what the community has already provided.”
Switching gears, why did you take the job in Jackson?
“I looked forward to coming to Jackson for a number of reasons. Mayor (Chokwe Antar) Lumumba is a compelling ‘once in a generation’ transformational leader, and I wanted to be part of his team. I really admire the members of the senior team of appointed officials that he has assembled. I wanted to finish out my career with my first professional love, which is public works infrastructure and operations. Beyond the job, I like the arts and cultural aspects that Jackson offers. Some of America’s best musicians and authors were born here. And the people of Jackson and Mississippi are among the nicest and most hospitable I have ever met. Most of all, though, I want to serve my Creator by serving His people, and as I prayed over this decision, the answer seemed clear: Jackson was where I was meant to be.”
How will this role be different from your previous positions?
“For nearly the entirely of the past 27 including two ‘tours of duty’ as interim executive director at (the) Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans. I enjoyed the accomplishments that my coworkers and I were able to achieve in those roles, but my heart’s desire was to return to lead up an operational area in municipal government. I truly enjoy the day-to-day challenges of providing effective public works services to my fellow citizens.”
How do Jackson’s road, water and sewer needs compare to those of other cities you’ve worked in?
“I have worked in Louisville, Ky., and New Orleans, and I have participated or led peer reviews in Boston, Ma., San Antonio, San Jose, Portland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Each city is different. It seems clear Jackson’s public works infrastructure has been challenged by under-investment, primarily due to funding shortfalls following population decreases, and the frequent turnover in the public works director position has not helped. But these challenges can be overcome.”
What best practices from other cities are bringing to Jackson?
“Let’s talk first about drinking water, waste water and storm water. I intend to assess our current work practices against the best practices identified in the Effective Utility Management Framework developed by a host of collaborating organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, American Public Works Association and Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. There is a comprehensive set of practices that will be used to determine the gaps between where we are and where we need to be.”
In recent years, the department has seen a significant decrease in workers. Mayor Lumumba promised a pay raise, and has given one to front line workers. What role do you play as director in helping the department recruit and retain workers?
“Nearly my entire work-life has been as a municipal employee. I found it to be a rewarding career from a personal and professional standpoint. In looking back over the past 35-plus years, I have enjoyed it tremendously. I want this same opportunity for young people here in Jackson … I will be working diligently to encourage the best and brightest of graduates from the local colleges and universities to consider joining our team. I also want to reach out to those who have not had the privilege of going to college to join us, too. There are plenty of opportunities for conscientious people looking to learn, grow and contribute. And that includes those citizens who have traveled through the difficult corridors of the judicial system.”
I want to switch gears one more time and ask about the consent decree. Jackson is working to renegotiate the decree now. What do you see as your role in the process?
“I will be leading this initiative.”
Dr. Robert Blaine, the city’s chief administrative officer, told me about your experience working on consent decrees elsewhere. Can you tell me about that?
“My experience in implementing a consent decree was in New Orleans. They entered their first consent decree in 1998, well before my arrival there. The consent decree was subsequently modified three times: in 2010, 2013, and 2014, while I was there. I played a supporting role while the negotiations … were led by the executive director and general superintendent. Areas reporting to me were responsible for financing the consent decree projects and providing regulatory compliance reporting.”