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Making Sure the City Works

By Jorge Casuso

September 18 -- You may take it for granted, but every time you turn on a faucet, take out the trash or drive down a city street, you’re benefiting from the work of Lee Swain and his 250 workers.

And when you’re all done, the City’s Department of Public Works is also in charge of Woodlawn Cemetery.

“A lot of public works is addressing the basic quality of life,” says Swain, who took over the department’s top post three months ago.

“They’re the basic things we like to take for granted in America. . . but there’s a lot of effort to make sure these things are working.”

As head of Public Works, Swain oversees solid waste management, civil engineering and water resources – which encompasses everything from making sure the trash is picked up to filling potholes in the streets and making sure the sewer lines don’t spew garbage into the bay.

Currently, the department is undertaking some 70 major public works projects, several of them Downtown, to the tune of “well over $300 million,” Swain says. They include the $8.2 million streetscape improvements along 2nd and 4th streets and retrofitting or rebuilding the six public parking structures.

The department – which relies on a variety of funding sources, including enterprise and Earthquake Redevelopment funds and State and Federal monies – is also overseeing construction of the Big Blue Bus’ maintenance facility going up at 6th Street and Colorado Avenue.

“There’s a lot of phases to a project,” Swain says, perusing a list as he sits in his first floor City Hall office with historic photos of the pier on the dark wood walls. “We see that we do it in a timely fashion and spend public money as prudently as we can.”

Swain plans to continue the environmental crusade championed by his predecessor, Craig Perkins, who became director of the Energy Coalition after helping make Santa Monica a capitol of sustainability and a leader in the use of alternative energy during his 15-year tenure.

Swain already had been pushing an environmentally-friendly agenda as the head of Public Works in Palmdale, where he worked for the past 19 years, creating an Environmental Division in a high desert city not usually identified with sustainability.

“There’s a lot of environmental factors in everything we do,” Swain says. “We integrate the needs of the people with the environment.”

Swain’s love of nature can be traced back to Skowhegan, a town with a Native American name nestled in the pristine woods of central Maine, where he focused on environmental engineering in college and capitalized on an aptitude for math and science.

Swain started working summers as a surveyor with the city engineer when he was still in school. After graduating, he headed west, where he landed a job in 1983 with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

He never looked back. But after climbing the management ladder, Swain still likes to roll up his sleeves and pore over plans.

“I like construction,” he says. “I once dreamt of owning a big construction company some day. I did a lot of work with plans, but as you move into management, you take care of more general things.”

The details are now in the hands of a workforce he praises for its “creativity and innovation.”
Swain, who is impressed with the City’s commitment to the environment, plans to further Santa Monica’s sustainable goals. One of his major priorities is using money from Measure V to clean up the water around the pier, which consistently receives among the lowest grades for water quality in the state.

The parcel tax, which was narrowly approved by voters in November 2006, should funnel $2.3 million a year for stormwater projects, including a watershed management plan that makes improving the pier storm drain a key priority.

Swain, who also is committed to pushing solar energy, believes in “continual improvement,” a phrase he likes to hammer in.

“This is a great community,” he says, “and we just try to make it better.”





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