City engineer Larry Nelson, perhaps Madison's most respected manager, is retiring on July 16, his 66th birthday. Nelson has been a city of Madison employee for 43 years, including two decades as top dog at engineering and stints as head of public works, traffic engineering and the water utility. Unfailingly accessible and responsive, Nelson agreed to an email grilling by Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders.
Isthmus: Do you remember your first day as a city of Madison employee?
Nelson: Yes. After a round of introductions and a trip to the personnel department, I was assigned a drafting table in an open office and drafted cross-sections of streets for earthwork quantities for the next several weeks. It was a necessary but tedious task, which has been largely automated by computers today.
Back then, in 1966, the Engineering Division had one enclosed office, the one I use today, and cubicles had not been invented.
You know this question is coming, so let's do it: What was your worst day on the job?
The worst day of my career and the worst week and the worst month was in November and December 1983 in the aftermath of the explosion at the Greentree landfill. We worked every day, 15 to 18 hours, until Christmas amid a political and legal storm. It was very stressful.
Okay, you've broken me down, here comes a softball: What are you most proud of?
That I got to help build bike paths to serve a substantial part of the city and that biking is now considered a serious transportation mode. Last year, the state measured some 2,400 users per day on the Southwest Bike Trail. That is equivalent to a collector street. Furthermore, it allows the city to "walk the talk" on sustainable design.
We're now working on the Cannonball to link the Arbor Hills Neighborhood to the rest of the city and to extend the last link of the Glacier Drumlin Trail on the east side. And we need to push a connection to the city's north side.
What advice would you give others in Madison who hope to accomplish as much?
Success is dependent on having a written plan that the elected officials can support. It can be as simple as "we shall inspect and repair all sidewalks in the city every 10 years." Take care of the daily issues of running a city including personal reconnaissance of problem areas. Treat all alders with respect and without regard to their or your political inclination.
That sounds like wise counsel. But what do you do when sound advice is rejected and respect not reciprocated?
It would be unusual that our advice is rejected; rather, it is typically weighed with other factors and recommendations. In the unlikely event that an action would endanger the public, as licensed professional engineers, we would of course have to bring the matter to the attention of the proper authorities.
Can you give an example?
Fortunately, I cannot recall a case where that has happened to me. A more typical situation is like the current issue of providing [disabled] access to the Hudson Park beach. That is being sorted out now, with the help of the city attorney.
Don't you ever have anything bad to say about anyone? If so, let's hear it.
Have we stumped you?
I do not have a problem with having "frank and candid" discussions with peers, subordinates or those who supervise me. I expect and enjoy the same from them. But those discussions have to be private in order to be effective.
What do you think of Ald. Michael Schumacher's suggestion that Madison hire a city administrator to oversee management and operations, a role he says you've performed?
The mayor has appointed [Streets Superintendent] Al Schumacher as the "Team Leader of Public Works and Transportation," which is the position I currently hold. I have great confidence in Al and believe he will do a good job getting the agencies to plan their work together. [As for hiring a city administrator,] the cost of adding another manager with clerical support probably exceeds a quarter of a million dollars per year. Now is not the time for that kind of expenditure.
So nuts to that idea. Are there any changes in city organization or management you think should be made?
We need to make sure that the opportunities and services of public works and transportation are fully integrated into our efforts for new development. I have had conversations with the mayor and others regarding better integration of those efforts.
Tell us something about Mayor Dave you think would be useful to other people who have dealings with him.
The mayor is very fast on picking up concepts. He likes data but doesn't wallow in it. A concise written summary that references the data and lays out the concepts is mindful of his time, and yours. Be prepared to submit more data. Be accurate or risk losing his interest.
And members of the Common Council - what advice do you have about working with them?
Each alder represents more than 10,000 Madisonians, more than most of our neighboring communities. Respect them and you respect the people they represent. Use their title and make them look good to their constituents. Advise and consult with them as soon as possible when there are issues in their districts.
So, when you're no longer running Madison, what will you be doing?
I hope to take a more active role in the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association, work on several deferred home-maintenance projects and reintroduce myself to my retired friends.
Do you like to fish?
No, and I don't like to golf either.