Public Works Career

(from Maine Townsman, April 2004)
By Steve Cartwright, Freelance Writer

      Potholes, plowing and long hours.  These things don’t change for a public works director.

       But how the state grows has added some strains. Sprawling development in towns around Augusta — bedroom communities such as Manchester,  Readfield, Winthrop, Farmingdale, Sidney, West Gardiner and others — has put thousands more cars on major routes into and through the Capital City. That translates into more maintenance of local roads to meet motorists’ expectations of speedy, bare highways.

       Probably no one knows this better than John Charest, head of the public works department for the City of Augusta and a 35-year veteran of that department. He helped out on a public works crew before graduating from Cony High School in 1965. Then, after two tours of duty as a Navy Seabee in Vietnam, he joined the city crew full-time in 1969. “I got out of the service on a Friday, came here Friday afternoon, and started on Monday,” he said.

       He remembers when many more state employees lived in the capital, and the roads were not so clogged with traffic. The pace wasn’t so hectic, he said. Today’s drivers seem to have no patience. They expect bare roads no matter the weather, and they complain if the roads don’t meet their expectations. Today, there are 35,000 cars commuting in and out of Augusta on state-maintained roads, and those motorists expect city roads to be as clear as the highways when they reach the city limits. This mean using more salt on snowy or icy roads.

       Where once the mixture was 50-50 salt to sand, it’s now 80-20. Still, people sometimes complain.

       Charest takes it in stride. “I used to get quite vocal about things, at times, but I’m mellower now,” he said.

       With an annual budget of $2.6 million, Charest logs a lot of hours on the job, especially if there’s a storm. But he says without hesitation, “I’ve totally enjoyed this career. I have no regrets. None whatsoever. It’s given me a good life, and I’d like to think I’ve given the city a good 35 years.” If that sounds like a retirement speech, think again. He isn’t ready yet, and actually wonders what he would do if he didn’t report to the hilltop at the end of North Street, where the APW occupies a 1959 garage expanded in the early 1970s.

       The biggest events in his career were the great Kennebec River flood of 1987, and the ice storm of 1998. Both disasters kept him and his crews busy 24 hours, for days on end. During the ice storm, Charest called in his crews at night, rather than risk injury or death from snapping trees. “It was getting really dangerous.” Nobody was out driving around anyway. They resumed clearing the roads at daybreak. “We lived right here for six days,” he said, sleeping on cots at the office.

       The cost of clearing fallen wood from roads was $500,000. Nobody at public works received a scratch during the ice storm. In fact, the safety record at APW is remarkable. One worker was badly injured by a reckless driver. He recovered. In the early days, “We used to be out there (with) no vests, no signs.” Things are safer today, he said, and his employees undergo extensive training. When he signed on in 1969, there wasn’t any formal training.

       Charest’s first job at APW was equipment operator, using the skills he learned in the Navy. He operated both a loader and grader. After four years, he was promoted to foreman, then to general foreman in charge of outside operations. When APW Director Elmer Degon retired in 1982, then City Manager Paul Poulin told Charest the job was his. “No,” protested Charest. “I’m happy where I am.”

       Poulin convinced him to take the job for a year, and after that Charest realized he could handle the top job. The city council confirmed his appointment in 1983, and that’s where he’s been ever since.

       What’s changed over the decades? “The equipment is so much better than what it was years ago — maintenance, reliability. The loaders you buy today (at $125,000 a pop) are just a pleasure to run. They’re operator-friendly; the comfort  . . . they have the operator in mind. I remember the equipment I was operating — some of it was ancient back then. Back then, the only thing that had two-way radios was the foreman and a few of the trucks. Now I have two-way radios in almost all my rolling stock, rubbish trucks, everything.”

       The fleet includes 50 off-road vehicles, such as loaders, and 75 other vehicles, such as plow trucks. “I’m in direct contact with them constantly,” he said of his 31 employees. Charest knows all his workers on a first-name basis.

       “I’ve always been a firm believer that if I ask a guy to give me 20 hours or 30 hours plowing, I’m not going to be home sleeping. I’m here from start to finish.”

       There were 55-60 workers when he started, but budget cuts and more efficient equipment have forced Charest to do more with less. Twenty-eight separate plow runs have been reduced to 23 longer runs. His department is responsible for curbside trash pickup, including recycling, but the dump itself has become a separate department.

       Several old-timers at APW have retired, taking a storehouse of knowledge with them. “But I’ve been fortunate,” Charest said. “I’ve been able to hire some real good people, dedicated people, to take their place.”

       Charest said at least one thing hasn’t changed. If there’s a snowstorm, he’s awake and feeling an adrenalin rush. The streets must be plowed, salted and sanded. The capital depends on his department to keep things going. “I still enjoy it. I probably won’t be here five more years,” he said. When not on the job, he finds time to play golf in the summer, and bowl in the colder months.

       “I like the challenge of things, like the ice storm (of 1998) and the flood of ’87.” In the spring of that year, excessive rain and runoff from rapid melting in the upper Kennebec River watershed left parts of downtown Augusta under a story of water. “It was a hell of a storm. I’ve got pictures of it. I was supposed to go to Las Vegas that morning, to a conference. It was April 1st, 1987. The manager called me that morning and said ‘John, you’d better stay here.’ I shut the bridge down,” he said, referring to the Father Curran bridge, which was almost awash when floodwaters peaked. Floating debris was being shoved by the current through the bridge railing, endangering people watching the spectacle.

       Although state officials objected when he closed the bridge, Charest said the safety of the public was paramount, and he had to do it.  Roads and parking lots were washed out, and lower floors of stores and homes damaged, yet not a single person perished or was seriously injured.

       Charest has one daughter living in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, who just made him a grandfather. He will definitely find time for that grandson, retired or not.