“Asphalt Is Asphalt. Snow Is Snow.” Steve Edwards Has Seen It All.

There are 2 things Steve Edwards dislikes: snowstorms, and talking to the media.

Last week — on the eve of the winter’s first snow — he sat down with “06880.”

But it could be the last time for both events. Westport’s public works director retires December 31. He’s spent 32 years in the department — 25 in charge — and is leaving just as he came in: low-key, steady, ready to tackle any problem, fully committed to his job and town.

Edwards calls himself “a farm boy from Easton.” After Joel Barlow High School he double majored in biology and chemistry at Bethany College — with a minor in physics.

He headed to the University of  Connecticut for grad school. Edwards planned on being a researcher. But he realized he liked “actually getting things done.” His early jobs as an engineering consultant involved site work for power plants, with an emphasis on lessening environmental impacts.

He traveled constantly. When a public works job in Westport opened up, he knew his background fit well.

Edwards joined the department in 1985, as Jerry Smith’s deputy. Five years later, he succeeded Smith.

In 1985, Edwards recalls, public works was “the wild west. There were not a lot of controls in place.” It was an old boys’ network.

Now, every employee needs a commercial drivers’ license. Standards are high. Locators on each truck record the speed, and tell where it is.

“When I got here, you sent a guy out to plow and couldn’t find him for 6  hours,” Edwards says.

Westport’s Public Works guys, in action a few years ago. (Photo/Luke Hammerman for Inklings)

“In this town, everyone’s looking at you. People take us to task if we don’t do our job. And they should.”

He praises his highway, building maintenance and sewer treatment supervisors. They help him lead his 55-person department.

Another change involves meetings. In the beginning, Edwards went to one night session a week. Now there are three.

“Back then we’d go to the Board of Finance for money, then to the RTM to okay it. Now there are grant meetings, informational meetings, charettes.

“Westport has a very educated population. They all want their opinions heard. Employees sift through a lot of information. It takes time to listen to everyone.”

That’s true across town government. “Poor Jen (Fava),” he says. “She’s got even more: Boating Friends, Tennis Friends, Golf Friends. I don’t have any friends.”

But in other ways, his job has not changed.

“Asphalt is asphalt. Snow is snow,” Edwards notes.

“Most everything people take for granted comes through us: town roads, and dead squirrels on them. The transfer station. Sewers and clogged drains. Snow removal. Beach repairs. You name it, we do it.”

When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.

Sometimes, Westporters expect public works to do everything. “A lot of people now come from New York. They’re used to concierges,” Edwards says.

“We’re their concierge. They don’t know who to call, so they call our department.” Sometimes he must explain that a road belongs to the state — not the town.

Edwards does what he can. Edwards gets great satisfaction from helping those who can’t fend for themselves. He has less patience with people who call in the middle of the storm “from an 8,000-square foot house with a generator, but they can’t get their favorite cable channel.”

Edwards has worked for 7 first selectmen. They’re all different, he says. But all recognize that Westport’s department heads are professionals. And “all of them realize that a lot goes on in public works.

“Quality of life comes through here,” Edwards adds. “We should be like a good referee: No one knows we’re there. If I’m in the press, it’s usually because I’ve done something wrong. I want to stay under the radar.”

Sometimes that’s hard. Six months after coming to Westport, Hurricane Gloria hit. His boss Jerry Smith was on leave, after a heart attack.

“I was wet behind the ears,” Edwards admits. “I had my hands full. Back then it was every man for himself.”

These days, he says, “the town is much better prepared. There’s so much more training and support.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Public Works took care of a section of boardwalk that ended up far from home. In emergencies they coordinate with other departments to keep Westport safe.

During Hurricane Sandy, he notes, “the amount of interdepartmental and inter-municipal coordination was phenomenal.” Public works, police, fire — even human services — all work together.

Edwards is retiring while he still feels good.

His wife wants to travel. “But I’m a homebody,” he says. “I’ve got my dog and my bike. I can hike. I’m happy.”

He’ll miss the people he’s worked with. Every employee now is someone he’s hired.

Edwards will stay on as a contract employee, consulting on projects like the pump station underneath the Saugatuck River. He started it, and wants to see it finished.

Next month, town engineer Pete Ratkiewich takes over. He knows the ropes: He’s been a town employee for 26 years.

Still, I asked: Does Edwards have any advice for his successor?

“You can’t take anything personally. We’re all professionals,” he said.

“We make recommendations. But at times things are way beyond our control.”

One example: during tight economic times, Edwards’ paving budget was once cut by $1 million.

“I went home, and I went to bed. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

He found a way to pave the roads.

And — a few months later — to plow them.

That’s what he’s done for 32 years. Thanks, Steve, for doing it very, very well.

21 responses to ““Asphalt Is Asphalt. Snow Is Snow.” Steve Edwards Has Seen It All.

  1. Always responsive, always on top of the problem one bitches about and always willing to get the job done….big shoes to fill and I’ll bet they’re a bit loose on the next person that sits at Steve’s desk.

  2. We have so much to applaud! Thanks again for your article ! It is heartwarming to recognize great work! (From a great and ethical person!)

    Sent from my iPhone Bobbi

    >

  3. Excellent read on an important service often taken for granted. Thanks Dan, for a peek behind the curtain at the “Wizard of WPW” . Thanks also to Steve and his Team for holding us all together around the edges! Cheers to You!

  4. Steve, I ‘d like to thank you publicly for all the times you helped me along the way in my P&Z commission “career”. You’ve been patient and forthcoming with information, and have helped us numerous times in getting things done the right way, even if it meant staying at our meetings until 11 pm. I have the highest regard for your professionalism and will miss your dry humor.

  5. Not as often in the news but, surely in many ways the backbone of our town Steve has done a masterful job of steering his ship. We all owe him and his department a deep debt of gratitude. Wishing you the best of luck in your future Steve. Certainly we in Westport will enjoy the fruits of your labor for generations to come!

  6. One of a kind, certainly! Always prepared and always professional. Steve, you will be missed. Best of luck and best of health!

  7. Classic story about a pillar of our community. Thanks for the years! – Chris Woods

  8. I agree what was said before me Steve you have helped the Downtown and all over Westport we all hope as westporters you enjoy your self now at you will retire thanks for your service to the town and the peaple that live here

  9. When Steve made a presentation to the RTM, he was always prepared and could answer any question asked briefly and succinctly. On top of that, he’s a nice guy.
    Thanks for your service, Steve🇺🇸

  10. Steve has done a phenomenal job for this town. Thank you Steve!

  11. Loretta Santella Hallock

    Enjoy your well earned retirement Steve. It was great working next door to you in Town Hall. Congratulations to Peter.

  12. Steve, the Town of Westport owes you a standing ovation. You are a class act and a true professional. I wish you the best.
    Tom Bloch

  13. Steve’s performance is always best in class. Look at our neighboring towns after a major weather event – you’ll see that Westport employees are immediately on the job. Great leadership and great results…no whining either. We’ve been very lucky. Thanks, Steve.

  14. Steve, you are truly a “Westport unsung hero”.
    Thanks for what you have done for us and the professionalism with which you have served Westport.

  15. The Westport DPW is a really well-run department. The employees are both courteous and responsive. As was typical of my interactions with them over the years, I called yesterday afternoon to report an issue in our neighborhood and it was already fixed by 7:30 this morning. Thank you, Steve, for your leadership, and thank you to your entire team for their hard work.

  16. Wendy Goldwyn Batteau

    Many thanks, Steve, for your knowledge, skills, professionalism, determination to get things done right and actually accomplishing that – and for being an island of calm in sometimes rough seas. Wishing you all the best – and also wishing to see you around town.

  17. Thank you Steve. You have done an excellent job over the past many years. Enjoy your free time,

  18. Great read….Thank you Dan…well deserved Steve…Thank you for all your service and leading a great crew of guys who have always gone beyond in keeping our roads clear and clean 365 days. I know you won’t miss those late RTM meetings, but we will miss you. The best, and thank you for leaving us with a well oiled machine of professionals.

  19. Best of luck and happiness to you Steve. You are a good man and have served our Town with distinction. Enjoy your retirement and do take a trip with your wife! Thank you for all you have done for us.

  20. As is confirmed and so evident from Steve’s words in this piece, Steve is a true professional. I have and do again wish him well. Don Bergmann

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