Sartor tapped to stay on as public works director

Veteran engineer has been leading Palo Alto's Public Works Department on interim basis for more than a year

After a year of new faces in top management, City Manager James Keene opted for stability and familiarity Thursday when he named Michael Sartor to lead Palo Alto's Public Works Department.

Sartor, who joined the city in 2002, has been serving as the interim director of the department for more than a year, having replaced Glenn Roberts in November 2010. Before that, he served as the assistant director of engineering.

"I am excited to have been chosen to lead the Public Works Department as we move forward to repair our aging infrastructure, strive to achieve our zero waste and sustainability goals, and shape the department into one focused on service to the Palo Alto community," Sartor said in a statement.

Keene's appointment of Sartor caps a year of dramatic turnover at top levels of City Hall. Newcomers to top management include City Attorney Molly Stump, City Auditor James Pelletier, Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental and Library Director Monique le Conge. The council had also recently appointed Palo Alto Police Department veteran Kenneth Dueker to head the city's newly created Office of Emergency Services

Sartor is charged with leading the Public Works Department at a time when the department is grappling with some of the city's most critical, complex and controversial projects. These include a community push to build a waste-to-energy facility in the Baylands, an overhaul of the city's cash-strapped refuse operation, construction of Mitchell Park Library, an effort to repair the city's infrastructure and regular maintenance of street trees -- a particularly sensitive subject in Palo Alto. The department also underwent an internal transformation earlier this year when its number of divisions was reduced from six to three.

Sartor had overseen the restructuring of the department and worked with the council-appointed Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission throughout the year to develop a plan to fill the infrastructure backlog. In a statement, Keene pointed to Sartor's experience as a major reason for his appointment.

"Mike has demonstrated a commitment to better integrate the Public Works Department within the City organization as well as engage the community on major initiatives," Keene said in a statement. "His experience with Palo Alto distinguished him from our field of candidates as well as his enthusiasm for working with the community to make public works responsive and forward looking."

Keene said Sartor was chosen after a lengthy recruitment process that featured 50 candidates, seven of whom were invited for interviews. The candidates were interviewed by two panels, featuring former elected officials, members of the Public Works department and other department heads.

Before he joined Palo Alto, he worked in Mountain View for six years as capital improvement manager. He had also spent 10 years in Woodward Clyde Consultants as an environmental and wate remediation program director. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from San Jose State and a masters of science in management from College of Notre Dame in Belmont.

Sartor's contract will go to the City Council for approval in January 2012.

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Posted by Business-As-Usual-In-The-PA-P/W-Dept.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

It’s hard to believe that Sartor was better qualified that every one of the fifty other candidates. However, given the mess that the P/W situation is in Palo Alto, he no doubt knows where all of the bodies are buried, and can be depended upon not to “make waves” about the situation. Also, it would take more than a year for any new candidate to come up to speed, given how byzantine the records systems at City Hall seem to be (meaning so little having been digitized and available for public review).

What is so difficult to understand is how Palo Altans have allowed their infrastructure to deteriorate, without having a better sense of “ownership”. Sadly, the City Council is not charged with any powers of “administration”, finding itself only in a “policy making” role. The Council has not even mandated that the City Manager actually determine the extent of the assets base owned by the City, so the Council does not even know how much “stuff” the City owns, or what the yearly maintenance costs on this “stuff” should be, to keep it in tip-top shape.

In this day and age, there is no reason that an “enlightened” Director of a City government’s Public Works would not have put all of the City assets in his domain on a data base, which would include the serviceability of the item, the likely end-of-life of the item, and the cost-to-replace the item at its end-of-life. With such information at his disposal, the idea of having “Blue Ribbon Commissions” of politically-connected individuals would be unnecessary—since the P/W Director could produce the current, and future, state of the City’s infrastructure with a “mouse click”.

Unfortunately, with the “good ole boy” form of government we have here in Palo Alto, it’s unlikely that we will see a state-of-the-art infrastructure management system for decades. At the moment, the use of IT by the P/W crew is dubious. They do have a significant investment in a GIS system, but how useable this system is to the complete P/W and public safety needs of the City is an open question.

The City Auditor did look at the condition of the streets a few years ago. However, the City Auditor did not understand street maintenance very much, and she had no idea how computer databases could be used to better coordinate “street cuts”. The City Auditor did point out (if memory serves), that the Palo Alto P/W Department was not using the latest software for managing street conditions, so that the status of the streets could not readily be compared to those reported by most of the City’s in the Bay Area, that were using the newest software. The P/W people have historically shown little/no interest in creating a database of street images, so that people could submit digital pictures of bad street, sidewalks, and help the P/W people know what the real condition of the streets might be. And with the advent of self-driving cars, the P/W Director should be considering the use of self-driving cars that take pictures of the streets, so that the knowledge of the streets could be fully known at any time, without having to spend valuable “people time” surveying.

It’s unlikely that Mike Sartor will be innovating any of these ideas. He’s been too comfortable (from all appearances) in being a “team player”, rather than serving the greater public good by “shaking things up”.

However, whether the best candidate (or not) for the job .. anyone will be a welcome relief from the previous P/W Director.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 23, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Business-as-usual...Your points about using modern technology are well taken. Visit Mike or send him short, one suggestion-at-a-time series of e-mails on how he could make his job easier and earn praise from Mr. Keene as well as the long suffering residents.

Long screeds like that above will dilute the impact of what you are trying to accomplish. Think of trying to organize all the ideas you gave into a manageable series of tasks with some sort of priority. Offer help; don't just complain and anticipate the worst.

That takes care of the long run. Do you have any constructive suggestions for the short run?

Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Dec 23, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Meet the new boss....

Same as the old boss....

Like this comment
Posted by Business-As-Usual-In-The-PA-P/W-Dept.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 24, 2011 at 9:28 am

>Sit with Mike and make suggestions ..

It is not likely that this would produce anything meaning for either of us. Having done that in the past with other Director level employees, there is little evidence that people at City Hall listen to residents--unless they see some potential for a “political alliance” that will benefit the employee, or the city department. City employees in this situation are inclined to be polite, listen, and then ignore the input. Certainly the impact of the City Auditor on P/W during the streets audit was difficult to measure. So—what could a resident have to say that anyone at City Hall would listen to?

Moreover, Sartor’s past history of not responding to public information requests makes it even more unlikely that such a meeting would take place, or result in his taking a new path as the P/W Director based on a suggestions of cost control and increase transparency in the P/W Department.

Newton’s First Law about “a body in motion ..” applies here. Most organizational changes occur “from the top down”, not from the “bottom up”. In the private sector, sweeping changes are often driven by downturns in financial affairs of companies that have not been making incremental changes to organizational structures, or integrating new technology into their manufacturing processes.. We see companies going out-of-business, merging, or moving to lower labor cost locations as a result of their failure to “manage” themselves effectively.. In the public sector, change doesn’t come all that quickly, because governments don’t go out-of-business--they just raise taxes to accommodate the never-ending rise in labor costs and errors in management.

If the City Manager had selected someone from “the outside”, the City Manager would have been sending a strong message to all of Palo Alto that he expected some “changes”, and bringing in “new blood” would have been the necessary organizational change that would hopefully caused the “body in motion” to start down another path. Of course, such a change would require a “vision”, and a “plan”. All of this is what Directors are supposed to be doing. Unfortunately, Palo Alto’s City Government has not been producing this sort of documentation on a yearly basis, so it is a now a big job to make such changes.

Sartor’s selection as P/W Director sends the message—no significant change for the next five to ten years in this department.

> short term suggestions

Well .. Sartor could:

1) Promise to obey all public records access laws.

2) Promise to answer all requests for information as soon as possible.

3) Promise to create an effective set of web-pages concerning all of the projects under the control of P/W.

4) Seek a supplemental budget increase to fund the necessary work to determine what is actually needed in terms of a well-designed information infrastructure for the P/W Department.

5) Promise to work with the new IT Director to interface to the City’s information infrastructure.

6) Request the new City Auditor to audit the P/W Department.

7) Explain clearly, and fully, why there are such significant cost overruns at the new library. The issue here is process, more than money. If the P/W Department can not get this project right, what about all future projects? Will we constantly be bombarded with poor design/cost estimation, cost overruns, and subsequent litigation? Who is responsible for the failure to estimate the costs properly? Sartor needs to be open and honest with the public on this matter.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 24, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Congratulations Mike. While this department has had its celebrated low points, the department also has numerous high points. I am looking forward to your putting your mark on Palo Alto the department. The tough times can lead to the smartest plans. Good luck.

Like this comment
Posted by Sameold sameold
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Low points? The Public Works Department has the reputation of being the most mismanaged in the city. How about the 4 Million $$$ extra for the Mitchell Park library. Public Works knew about it and should have caught the mistakes long ago. It has been underplayed and kept low. Four Million Dollars, wow.
I guess Mr. Wenzlau is counting on Mr. Sartor to build his recycling factory. Never too early to start greasing the wheels. It's good for business.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 26, 2011 at 11:01 am

Let’s not forget the Homer Tunnel.

From Web Link

When the City Council gave its initial approval in 1998, it was estimated to be only $2.3 million -- a price tag that ultimately ballooned to $5.4 million.

Former Mayor Gary Fazzino called the tunnel a "white elephant" -- both expensive and worthless.

"It so often happens that council members and city staff hear the siren song of matching dollars and private support for projects and, because of that fact, move otherwise unimportant or unnecessary projects to the top of the list," Fazzino said.

The engineer in charge of the project called the tunnel "a total success." NOTE: This is the same engineer now responsible for the proposed 101 bike bridge.

Like this comment
Posted by bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Well said Pat and Gary Fazzino. How can we have elected so many short sighted Council Members in the past? Maybe this time we have at least five who can take a longer view.

"Business...." You have assumed the worst and given up without trying to discuss ideas with Sartor - he may not be like a previous director. Don't overwhelm him with 50 ideas. Try a few and see what happens. What do you have to lose?

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph Kott
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 26, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Congratulations and good luck to Mike!

Mike did a fine job in managing the Homer Tunnel construction. While the location itself was not chosen by City staff, Mike and other staff created an attractive, well-designed, well-lit and safe facility.

Ancient polemics aside, the Homer Tunnel in fact is well used as a connection between downtown and PAMF, Paly, Town & County, and Caltrain. As a Palo Alto resident who regularly uses the Homer Tunnel, I’m glad it and the parallel pedestrian and bicycle path west of Alma and Caltrain that it connects to are there. Always better to light a candle than to uselessly curse the darkness. Good job, Palo Alto Public Works, for lighting a candle with the Homer Tunnel project!

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