By David Unmacht
My neighbor Derek and I are early risers. It’s not uncommon for us to extend a greeting sometime between 5 and 5:30 a.m., when we both leave our houses for the day. One early morning this winter, he was standing outside his truck, which was at the end of his drive¬way. I thought something might be wrong, so I went to find out. I almost fell immediately upon touching my driveway. It was the morning of an ice storm.
I stopped and yelled, “What’s up?” Derek said, “I can’t get up the hill. The ice is too bad.” I delicately walked out to the street to talk with Derek, and we both agreed that if his truck couldn’t make the hill, my sedan had no chance.
Within minutes and with good luck, a City of Eagan snowplow drove right by us and, to our surprise, it could not make it up the hill either. But the driver was very clever, well trained, or both.
After realizing his truck was stalled by the icy hill, the driver slowly backed down. But he was not done. He put the plow in reverse and then backed up the hill with the salt and sand mixture dropping ahead of his wheels. With amazement, we watched the truck, in reverse, methodically ascend the hill. Our path was now cleared, and the ice was defeated.
Weeks later, it’s early spring and I’m looking outside my front window with only a few pieces of dirty snow remaining on the ground. The ice is now water running into storm drains and soaking the grass and farm fields. A perfect time for me to reflect on the rough winter we shared.
One of my favorite experiences as an administrator in Belle Plaine and Prior Lake was going out with our city’s public works staff, not only in the winter, but also the summer. Riding shotgun in the cab of the snowplow, there was little conversation as the driver was highly engaged and very focused on his or her work. The noise of the plow and the snow being forcefully pushed was intense and almost mesmerizing.
Summertime was different, and the conversations were more free-flowing. I always felt welcome in the cab of a truck. The crew was proud of their work and enjoyed talking about it. My interest was genuine and my learning curve steep. I was not afraid to ask dumb questions. I was also a captive audience—no way was I jumping out of the moving vehicle. When I worked for Scott County, I would occasionally go out on a hot summer day with Public Works Director Lezlie Vermillion (who is now the county administrator) and deliver a cooler of cold beverages to the crew during a break in the construction and paving season. It was hot, dirty work, and the crew’s appreciation for an ice-cold drink was worth the ride. I’d do that again in a minute if given the opportunity.
Streets, roads, sewers, waterlines, stormwater systems, salt, sand, gravel, rock, pipes, and noise, yes noise: these are all among the elements that are part of a city’s infrastructure. That infrastructure takes a beating in the winter; and the care and feeding of our systems is done marvelously by the public works staff. While well established as non-glamorous work, that does not diminish the pride the team takes in building, maintaining, and fixing our systems. From long hours to short nights, from frozen clothes to sweat-soaked shirts, the public works team adjusts and adapts to each season with a sense of heightened expectation and then, finally, relief. And then they do it all over again.
As the plows are being taken off the trucks, cleaned, maintained, and then stored for the summer, reach out to each member of your crew and extend a special thank you for their winter efforts. A record snowfall is now a memory, and we owe a deep thanks to our drivers, the staff and mechanics that maintain the fleet, and the office staff that receive complaints and compliments.
Derek and I are certainly grateful to that driver. By the time you read this column, I will have called Eagan Public Works Director Russ Matthys to express our thanks and to applaud the driver who faced and overcame that ice challenge. This extra effort may be long forgotten by the driver, but it will never be forgotten by two residents.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.