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.