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