By Gerhard Schneibel

Building a city department from the ground up can be a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity, and Sandy Springs Public Works Director Angelia Parham recently received a once-in-a-lifetime honor for doing just that.

American City & County Magazine named her the nation’s Public Works Director of the Year for her efforts to “sculpt the physical transformations that the new city’s elected officials and residents have wanted for decades.”

Parham was the interim director of Roswell’s transportation department when Sandy Springs hired her in April 2006, four months after the city was founded. To deal with everything from road maintenance and traffic lights to recycling and capital improvements, her department has five divisions: construction management/project management; field services; storm water; traffic services; and transportation planning.

“I think it was a very unique opportunity. It was exciting to be part of a new city and be able to try to develop a new program that was tailor-made for the city,” she said. “Rather than having something handed to you that’s already been done, it’s good to have the chance to try to build it the way you think it needs to be built and to have the flexibility to make changes. We’ve done that along the way, and I think that’s helped us be successful.”

The subscribers of Atlanta-based American City & County submitted nominations for Public Works Director of the Year, and the editorial staff picked the winner, profiled in the August issue.

“Angelia Parham is a trailblazer,” said Bill Wolpin, the editorial director of American City & County. “She has created out of whole cloth a well-oiled machine that has tackled a series of problems that have been festering for decades.”

Parham faced the daunting task of dealing with a dilapidated infrastructure and ensuring the basic functions worked. Fulton County had failed to address such simple problems as burned-out bulbs in traffic lights.

“We spent the first several months just making those kinds of changes that were very noticeable,” she said.

Another priority in Parham’s first days was establishing quality customer service in Sandy Springs. Today, residents who report public works issues receive tracking numbers to follow up on the status of repairs.

“The citizens in the community really wanted a team that was responsive,” Parham said, “and so that’s where the initial areas were ? to be responsive when someone called … that someone answered the phone and followed up with them.”

To maintain a consistent level of quality in the department, Parham assembled a staff of 22 full-time employees and several contractors.

“When you pull a lot of people together with a lot of innovative ideas and you give people room to grow and think, I think that’s where this team really shines,” she said. “We take a lot of pride in what we do. Some of the things that we do touch people’s lives, and we’re always happy to do anything that improves that.”

Assistant City Manager Al Crace spoke about Parham’s education and background. As a co-op student, she worked her way through the University of Tennessee’s civil engineering program.

“She worked a progressive set of assignments with the Federal Highway Administration,” he said. “That has given her a lot of perspective. She’s done everything from carrying stakes for a surveying crew up to much higher-level assignments. Women in engineering doing outside work like that was not at all the norm.”

Parham also holds a master’s degree from Texas A&M University and worked at the Texas Transportation Institute.

“That is where some of the most comprehensive research in modern traffic engineering and services are performed on a national level,” Crace said.

He attributed Parham’s success as public works director to a blend of technical background, work ethic, leadership, vision and communication skills.

“A great number of nights when we would have something like a water break or some significant, important event, she’s right out there with her team,” Crace said. “I think (the award) is well earned, and it’s an honor. Angela is the leader of the team, and she inspires commitment from her team.”

Parham said the aspect of her work that makes her the proudest is the tangible effect the Public Works Department has on people’s quality of life. “We’ve been able to be responsive and to meet challenges and to truly make a difference in many of the citizens’ daily lives, whether it’s resurfacing a street or changing the timing of traffic signals on Roswell Road.”