The Public Works Nerds

St Paul Public Works Director Sean Kershaw and his Unorthodox Path to a PW career

February 27, 2024 Marc Culver, PE Season 2 Episode 5
The Public Works Nerds
St Paul Public Works Director Sean Kershaw and his Unorthodox Path to a PW career
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode I sit down with my hometown Public Works Director, Sean Kershaw. As any public works nerd knows, we are at times over critical of those that serve us where we live, and we most likely have experienced that heightened scrutiny from current and retired public works professionals that live in our communities. It can be good, reaffirming, constructive, and frustrating. I know most of you reading this have been there.

Sean takes this all very well. He is not your traditional public works professional. His background is more diverse and involves a stint as a planner and roles in the non-profit realm. The perspective he has gained through his professional journey is well applicable to public works and our overriding goal of public service. 

I enjoyed learning more about Sean and his background and what has surprised him in this role. Sit back and listen in on this conversation with one of the most sincere, approachable and self-accountable people I've met. 

Show notes:

The proverb Sean and I were searching our grey haired minds for:
Luck favors the prepared mind.

Sean and his husband's Backyard Concert Series Site:
https://grandoakopry.com/




Sean Kershaw:

Welcome to the Public Works Nerds podcast.

Marc Culver:

Welcome to the Public Works Nerds podcast, the Public Works podcast of the nerds, by the nerds and for the nerds. I'm your host, mark Culver. Thank you, as always, for joining us. Today, we're joined by the director of Public Works for my hometown, the city of St Paul, sean Kershaw. Welcome, sean.

Sean Kershaw:

It's great to be here.

Marc Culver:

I was born in St Paul. Born at Bethesda Hospital, st Paul grew up there, in my formative years until I was 13 and then moved up to the Forest Lake School District where I graduated from high school. But in my adult life I have lived my entirety in St Paul. I'm on my second home in St Paul, living in the St Anthony Park near Brewhood, and I'm an East Sider. I'm a St Paul guy. I guess sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with St Paul, but it's home to me and I think it may always be home to me. So I'm really excited to have Sean here His first time.

Marc Culver:

I've had the privilege of meeting Sean, sitting down and talking to him. I've seen you interact with residents in the public on social media and I applaud you for being approachable and available to both the media and the public and being responsive and accountable to the public. So I give you a lot of credit for that. But before we dive more into that, let's learn a little bit more about you, sean, and you know an unorthodox path to the role that you're in. But yeah, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sean Kershaw:

Certainly unorthodox, which, when I interviewed the mayor, set up a panel of citizens in St Paul to do initial rounds of interviews, and the first words out of my mouth when I met with them was that whether I'm a good candidate for the job depends on your definition of what is needed in St Paul. Because I said right out of the chute that St Paul doesn't have an engineering problem, we don't have a maintenance problem, we have a money problem, and when you raise more money, you need to spend it differently, you know. So we're dealing with 50 years of inequities. You know the need to address sustainability, a safety crisis, and so I approached this job not as an expert in public works, but wanting to build the community support for more money and to spend that money differently than we might have in the past. Now I will tell you on the side, my friends were split when they heard that I got this job, either thinking I was crazy or it was the best job ever.

Sean Kershaw:

I grew up in Omaha, nebraska. I used to create streams in our backyards. I was a Lego nerd. I had my bio when I was at the Citizens League two jobs ago, noted that I had 17 weather apps on my phone and that you know, just, I've loved weather, I love maps, I love surveys.

Sean Kershaw:

One of the genuine things about the job is that I love every bit of the work that we do in public works. Now, at no point do I ever think I'm an expert, but I love all the work that we do and that's part of the appreciation. You know I don't come to it as an engineer. The first day I ever worked in public works was my first day on the job, but I'd work for the city for 11 years. You know St Paul is someone joked the other night. You date Minneapolis and then you marry St Paul, and so.

Sean Kershaw:

I've lived in St Paul for 30 years. I know the city really well and I was excited about engaging people you know, the community in the important work that public works does.

Marc Culver:

Yeah Well, talk a little bit. I saw that on when I was, you know, creeping on you a little bit doing some research, trying to figure out who you were. I saw that you had spent some time at St Paul in the 90s. Talk a little bit more about what that role was and what did you do with the city.

Sean Kershaw:

I was really lucky to work. I was technically in the Department of Planning and Economic Development for 11 years but I spent part of that time working in Mayor Norm Coleman's office and I was kind of a generalist so my title was project manager. I did housing development. I did small business loans. I was a small business liaison for the city for a number of years, which is a really important skill. You know when you're doing public works because the impact we have. I got to know the neighborhoods and the district councils. I worked then on education issues. I worked on IT issues. I worked on Y2K, which is a whole nother you know sidebar conversation for a few years. But it gave me, you know, most of my work was in planning and economic development. So development projects, housing, all of that. But I learned small business loan underwriting. I got familiar with the neighborhoods and public works was always my dream job. Really I've described it. You know I happen to be gay and I've described this as my professional coming out.

Marc Culver:

You were in the closet for so long I was in the closet.

Sean Kershaw:

I love sewers. When we bought our house I got a map of the sewer connection. You know the lateral between our house and again, I don't know anything about civil engineering, but I love the work that public works does, so in many ways I think it's the most exciting job you know in the whole city.

Marc Culver:

Well, I'm not going to challenge you on that. I will wholeheartedly agree to that and I could spend a lot of time on that, and a lot of our podcasts do talk about that, and one of our regular guests, mark Ray, who's at the city of Burnsville right now, he's kind of coined a phrase with us that we make normal happen.

Sean Kershaw:

I've quoted Mark on that a number of times that that is a perfect. What I, what I remind employees every day, is that our work touches the you know the residents, visitors and businesses in St Paul more than anybody, any other department, any other entity. And making normal policy I mean making normal possible is kind of exciting.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, well, that's great and we'll talk a little bit more about that and your passion for public works in that. But I want to learn a little bit more about about your path. You know so you were. You were at the city of St Paul, for a detail, 11 years.

Sean Kershaw:

I was there for 11 years. I went from there to the Citizens League and that actually relates a lot to what you know became my role at the citizen at public works. In the Citizens League we did a lot of public engagement in policymaking. So we would study an issue and the whole goal was to bring different stakeholders together to study an issue, come up with recommendations and then work to implement them. And one of that was learning new ways of engaging people in politics. You know Minneapolis, st Minnesota, has this great civic past. You know in the Minnesota miracle and all these things, but the world has changed a lot. You know, since the early 1970s A lot of my time at the Citizens League was learning new ways of involving citizens in policy issues.

Sean Kershaw:

Now, some of the policy issues we worked on were transit funding, street funding. You know we looked at the property tax system in St Paul and whether or not there could ever be a payment to the tax system. So that experience gave me knowledge of the legislature and relationships. It gave me, you know, an understanding of policy and an understanding of how. You know your listeners will appreciate that a lot of public works is really about capital. You know assets and maintaining them in the finance side of that and I got really comfortable. I'm a sociology major, so again, nothing to do with public works, but I spent a lot of time learning about finance and you know how financial systems, especially around capital assets, work.

Marc Culver:

That's awesome and that obviously has informed a lot of what you're working on today and advocating for today and I think that's the interesting, one of the interesting elements of the job that the role that you're in is a lot of that is advocating for that financing, you know.

Sean Kershaw:

It is, and one of the things that I told the mayor, you know I mentioned my citizens league job. I spent two and a half years at the Wilder Foundation and I should have mentioned that connection because at Wilder I had a real great opportunity to really get involved in issues around equity and diversity and community leadership and you know how to bring diverse communities into policymaking in ways that policymakers you know needed to change how they were doing work. So part of what I acknowledged to the mayor was the most inequitable, you know, thing to happen in St Paul over the last 75 years was kind of a public works project, you know, as the State Highway Association, it was the federal government, but when Minda you know the Highway Department came in and put in 94, that had a huge impact on the community. And so, whether it's equity or sustainability, you know, and climate change safety talking about how we spend our money to achieve those goals is also really important.

Marc Culver:

Yeah just maybe spend one minute on what is the Wilder Foundation. It's a really well known I think the name is very well known in Minnesota particular, but I don't think a lot of people understand what they really do.

Sean Kershaw:

Yeah, wilder Foundation is a really amazing organization that most of their work is around either healthcare or economic services, so they do mental health, they do health delivery in really innovative ways, especially with new communities, low income communities and communities of color really, really innovative niche there and so there's a real number of economic support programs for elderly and for families. That again innovative, successful, creative. They've got a research arm and when I was there I headed up the Wilder Center for Communities which led, which housed, the Promise Neighborhood School Program and Community Leadership. Okay well great.

Marc Culver:

And you said you were there for a little over two years and then this, this opportunity came out. So what? What thought process did you go through in? Like you said, you love you've always been as public works guy. You're coming out of the closet on that. You know I'll get away from planning and economic development. And you know what? What made you actually make the leap?

Sean Kershaw:

to it. So it's kind of embarrassing, but it's true. I heard that Kathy Lan tree, my predecessor, was leaving again the back of my mind. This was always my dream job. I was working with a coach with a professional coach at the time and a lot of what we were doing was diving into, like, what are my real interests? What do I want to do? I took one of her exercises and I did a one pager on how I how would I approach public works. You know, as the director, and I set it aside and one Thursday morning.

Sean Kershaw:

I'm like, alright, I got it. I got a source of Sunday night. I was like I got, look at the job. I went online. I saw the contact person. I said you know, I'm really interested. You know, can can we talk? The deadline had technically passed but she was doing a community and the community committee was meeting that night. So I cleared my schedule, I did an interview with her, I sent her my one pager and then she called me back, you know, like a week later and said the community committee wants to talk to you and I'm sure that I was the outlier.

Sean Kershaw:

And I went into that for broke. Like this is I've got a great job, I love working at Wilder, this is my dream job, go for it. And so I sat down with that committee thinking I had nothing to lose. Turns out, as things went along, covid hits. That had a huge impact on our work at Wilder and we actually financially lost a bunch of money and had to scale programs back. And so it went from a situation of like I got nothing to lose to you know, I could have a lot of things to lose.

Sean Kershaw:

I interviewed with the mayor and the deputy mayor, so my first interview was in February, pre covid, in person. I did my first interview with the mayor and the deputy mayor the Thursday before George Floyd was murdered and in that we talked about equity and we talked about the fact that, you know, public works had to be conscious of Both past harms and how we need to do our work differently. You know, george Floyd is murdered, the process shuts down again, and then about the second or third week of June I got a call from a number that I didn't recognize and I answered it. It was the mayor, asking if I wanted to join the team and that you know that was both a relief and you know I felt like I had won the lottery. Yeah.

Sean Kershaw:

So it was. Had I not sort of done this nerdy one pager, when I still keep that one pager, you know, at my desk as kind of a reminder of why I got into it, that you know it was mostly a lot of luck frankly.

Marc Culver:

Well, well, you had the one pager. I mean, you've done that, the thought and everything. So I think you know luck is, and I don't know what the right saying. I'm sure there's a great saying about this, but you know, I mean luck is, it's kind of like the force it's there, but those who know how to use it, those who prepare themselves, are more lucky you know there is some right statement that I'm forgetting, some proverb that talks about benefiting the prepared.

Marc Culver:

Yep, yeah, so so well done and congratulations, and just what was touch on this quick, so you know the mayor calls you. So this is really an appointed position with from the mayor. Yeah, so what does that mean for you, like from a job security perspective? Like you know, I'm not sure when Mayor Carter is up for reelection. I think he was just reelected in 2022.

Sean Kershaw:

I think so, yeah, yeah.

Marc Culver:

So it was a before. Your terms of 2026 would be the election. So I mean theoretically, if he doesn't get reelected, your, your position is in jeopardy.

Sean Kershaw:

It's always you know, I'm sort of one really bad snow fall away from losing a job Are we all. And now you know, for those of you who are listening who are in the private sector, that's kind of you know that that's what comes with any job.

Marc Culver:

Yeah.

Sean Kershaw:

But I certainly appreciate the fact that the luck I have of being in this role doesn't come with, you know, any security. Now, that also puts an emphasis on you know, connecting with all the stakeholders here, because I, you know, like I said, it's a dream job of mine. I'd like to, you know, be in this role. I don't see this role as a stepping stone to something else. Public work takes a long time, and so I'd love to have the chance to be in the role you know, long enough to complete some, some long term projects that St Paul desperately needs.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, yeah, I think that's the probably the difficulty of doing this type of job. You know, within a short window, trying to get anything done is the. The time Of any project, of any initiative in public works just takes so much time to really see how it plays out, you know, to see is this going to work, is this not going to work? It's not something that you're going to see in one season or or what have you. So, and even this and I think maybe this is a good segue into the sales tax funding, as we talked about financing and things like that you know St Paul went through a huge effort, a huge, a huge public information campaign to inform residents and get the vote out on this sales tax funding. But it's a 1% sales tax approved by referendum by the St Paul voters last year in November, and you know you're going to spend upwards of a billion dollars between streets and parks over 20 years, but to see the impact of that is going to take 510 years plus really totally agree.

Marc Culver:

Yeah. So I think that's a great example. But talk about that, that whole thing you know, you know who came up with this idea and then how did that impact?

Sean Kershaw:

you know, you and you know, and then that probably plays back to some of your experience in the private sector of doing this campaign on it, you know it does, because one of the things I should have mentioned was when I was at the Citizens League, we were working on genuinely difficult issues education reform, you know. How do you close the achievement gap? How do you address health inequities? Those are issues with really difficult problems, you know. I mean there's a difficult definition of the problem. There's not a lot of certainty about solving it in the world of public works. One of the great things about it is you can look at something and you can solve it tomorrow with the right, right resources. So in one sense, it was moving from this world with really complex, difficult problems to problems that I'm not minimizing how hard public works is, but are primarily about raising resources and spending them the right way, and so I credit to the mayor.

Sean Kershaw:

The sales tax idea first came up in 2019, I think, and it was dropped because the legislature changed the process of getting sales tax approved and was going to make it impossible COVID comes along.

Sean Kershaw:

It was all always sitting out there. Part of what we did with the public elected officials was highlight how resources spent on public infrastructure in St Paul have pretty much been constant, you know, for the past 20 years, and that I mean an absolute numbers, and so the inflation adjusted value of those have been dropping every year. So, surprise, surprise, streets are on a 124 year replacement cycle when they should be on a 60 to 70 year replacement cycle. So credit to the mayor. He announced last fall this is pre-nightmare, winter pre, even before we knew what the election was going to be that we needed to go all in and ask for a full one cent sales tax. And he was adamant about that the whole time. I mean, I will admit that at many points I would have said you know, let's take a half cent let's, let's a half a loaf is better than no loaf.

Sean Kershaw:

He really stuck with it and said no, we've got a moment. That became more clear after the election. You know the opportunity. It became more clear as the legislative session was going on. But a real credit to our delegation in St Paul and to the mayor for saying this is a once in a generation opportunity. It'll take a generation to implement, like you said, and so that's where all my Citizens League experience came in meeting with legislators, understanding the education role versus the lobbying role, meeting with the public speaking about why this, these resources, are so important. So I do think the experience I had from the Citizens League, you know, combined with the leadership of the mayor, the leadership of city council, leadership of our delegation, really worked out well. I will also say that having the worst winter ever was was. There's nothing happy about it, but it reinforced the fact that our streets are old and falling apart.

Marc Culver:

Right, right, yeah, that this last spring was just horrible as far as payment condition and potholes and and everything you know. There's nothing like a really tough winter to to really show your age in your street infrastructure and we definitely had that, and then and then we get, then we get this year, and then you know my, if you did a word cloud of me last year it was lots of I'm sorry this year you know it should be your welcome. Yeah.

Sean Kershaw:

After all, of course, I had nothing. You know it's climate change, but yeah, it's a big. Our teams are out doing street sweeping. They were even doing sidewalk crossings, you know, they were painting crossings crazy in February. We're doing brush clearing. We're doing, you know, we're staying ahead of the potholes rather than, you know, fearing the tidal wave that hit us last year. So it's, it's certainly been two really different winters.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, yeah, and that that's incredible. And you know you mentioned how many weather apps you have on your phone and that and it's, it's, it's amazing and maybe this is well, I don't think it would be a surprise to you because you've you've been so in tune with with weather for so long. But you know that's, one of the things that can be surprising is how much weather plays into our day to day operations and such in the public works world. You know, just getting back to the the street funding and that with this, with this additional sales tax, are you, do you guys catch up in 20 years or what? What's kind of a your your guess at a continued gap?

Sean Kershaw:

I told the mayor that, like the great news is we got the sales tax, the bad news is my hand is going to be out, you know, for a long time, because there's there's no question that the sales tax helps us catch up on our arterials and collectors. It will have a major impact on those we still have to redo our residential streets. 20% of the city, you know, has not been reconstructed in 50 years. We've still got streets that are oiled with no curbs. So in my mind, I've broken all of our assets out into, you know, public or street lights. Our street lights are getting clovered with copper wire left.

Sean Kershaw:

Yeah, yeah, we can talk more about that. So there's no question, though, that the sales tax will have a huge impact on our terriers and collectors. It'll it'll affect the worst streets and allow us to draw our attention over to these other. You know, street lights, sidewalks, residential streets that work.

Marc Culver:

And I think also worth noting is that, from what I've seen, as far as what you're proposing on, you know these arterials and collectors that you're going to be reconstructing, you're not just, you're not just replacing the pavement, you are really being intentional about rethinking the streets and what, how they serve, what purpose they serve, you know, in building. I mean, st Paul's got a very ambitious bike plan, which I think is great, but maybe just talk about how you went through that and and you know how that money is going to be impacting that.

Sean Kershaw:

Yeah, we. I mean the bad news is obvious. We have old streets that need a lot of work. The good news with the sales tax is when you redo those you can do them for the next 50 or 75 years. So if you think about Summit Avenue, it used to be four lanes each. You know two, two lanes each direction and Central Park. I mean somebody called Summit Avenue the Central Park of St Paul. I mean it kind of serves that role.

Marc Culver:

Right, because it's just got those who aren't aware of some of parks. I got this massive median in the middle of it. It's it's this beautiful parkway, almost.

Sean Kershaw:

It really is.

Marc Culver:

Through a very historic part of St Paul.

Sean Kershaw:

And whether it's Summit or all of these streets, how do we add safer, wider sidewalks? How do we add bicycle facilities? How do we improve the connection to businesses Some of the segments we have are in commercial corridors and how do we make you know? Grand Avenue is going through this huge transition right now, and it's been clear that the walkability of the street is really key to its economic revival, and so now we've got money to reconstruct Grand Avenue.

Sean Kershaw:

Now we obviously want to work really closely with the businesses. But when you, when you reconstruct a street, you know you can. You can talk about equity made real. You can talk about safer, you know, for all ages. You can talk about multi modes. You can take all these values which in a lot of professions are sort of fuzzy and out there, and in our profession, our concrete and asphalt, you know iron and steel and trees, and so the that's really one of the amazing things about public works is you can have this massive impact on things that really matter to the community. Yeah.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, hey everyone. I just want to take a quick moment to thank our sponsor, bolton Mink, who is producing and editing our podcast.

Bolton & Menk:

At Bolton Mink, we believe all people should live in a safe, sustainable and beautiful community. We promise every client two things We'll work hard for you and we'll do a good job. We take a personal interest in the work being done around us and, at the end of the day, we're real people offering real solutions.

Marc Culver:

Absolutely, and I think that that ties very well into me asking you some some pretty direct questions about all right, here's this guy who was, who's had this real strong interest in public works for a very long time and you're in the job. You've got the job now and, like you said, your first day, your first experience with public works, was your first day on the job. So what happened? I mean, what in? What was the biggest surprise as you entered that realm?

Sean Kershaw:

There's no question that the biggest surprise was the constantness of it, and again, with your listeners, I'm sure that probably is not a big insight, but if you think about last year, there were, you know, we had the worst winner ever three major rainstorms, rainstorms, third, most snowfall. We're into the worst pothole season ever. We had a flood in there. We've got copper wire theft, you know we it was pretty much constant all the time, and so you know, having two phones by you 24 hours a day, the public visibility, you know, in a bad, the bad winner that we had. So it's not I couldn't just hide, you know I had to address the things that were happening, and so I don't. I guess it was a surprise that it's pretty much a 24 seven, you know, job in many ways Now we get breaks now with this winner, but we're dealing with copper wire theft. You know I, the biggest surprise was the constantness of it. I will also say, though, that, like, one of the surprises is how amazing the team is.

Sean Kershaw:

You know, people like to pick on snowplow drivers like their idiots. All they want to do is get that street cleaned, and if people would move their damn cars they could, and so one of the. It's kind of been like going back to school. I've gotten a CDL. I went through snowplow training, you know. I've been in the sewers, I've cleaned in the sewers, I've gone along with our traffic folks. So learning about you know I was always interested in it. But then getting into the weeds on some of the topics has been great. But I think there's no question the biggest surprise is that it is always happening.

Marc Culver:

How much time did it take you to get your CDL?

Sean Kershaw:

It took. It was an intensive.

Marc Culver:

I went through snowplow operator training and for those that aren't a public works nerd CDL commercial drivers license.

Sean Kershaw:

Yes, and I have a class B at one of a class A with an air brake certification. In my first year. It was really important to me because I wasn't an expert in public policy or public works to learn from the standpoint of people experiencing it. And so I went to the first snow plow operators training spot training, we called it and I think I thought they thought I was gonna be there and hand out donuts and I stayed and I got in a truck, you know, and they took me around and I'd spend a little more time in trucks. And then again this past year, in 23, I was there for most of the week in a truck going through the rodeo no CDL and I told them, like nobody's voting about whether or not I'm gonna be plowing the streets, because I'm pretty sure they don't want me plowing the streets.

Sean Kershaw:

But I, you know, I passed all the requirements and then in November I took an intensive week with an instructor, went through the training and then passed later that week. So it was weeks and hours worth of work in different concentrations of time. And it was a blast. It was really, really fun.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, what's your favorite vehicle to drive?

Sean Kershaw:

Well, we have Mack trucks. So that's all I know and I'm careful about that. But I look out. I have an office over at Dale Street where our garages are, and outside my window are the street sweepers, and they're just so. We have these Elgin street sweepers and all of our equipment is. So, you know, fun to experience. And I know that seems my college friends, I don't think, know what to do with the person I've become, because they're in law and medicine and academia and you know I'm in the sewers.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, that's great. Well, there's a lot of fun toys in public works, particularly if you have your CDL to play with, so it'll be interesting to hear what other experiences you gain over your time there. But I wholeheartedly agree about and that's one thing I should have done as a public works worker Now that you say that I kind of regret not doing that myself. But you know, seeing a snow plow up front and again, if you're listening to this, more than likely you've seen a snow plow pretty up front. Unless you're down in Florida or something, you may not have seen a snow plow. But just to see some of this equipment in person, you know, up front, and really to gain an appreciation for how large Exactly.

Marc Culver:

These pieces of equipment are, whether it's a street sweeper or a front end loader or a snow plow or what have you, and you know you get this huge tandem dump truck with a plow in the front of it, a wing and the salt equipment and spreaders and everything it's. I mean, it's really intimidating.

Sean Kershaw:

It's, and I, in all of our work, I have to be really careful. There's an important difference between learning and appreciate how people do work and thinking I can do it, you know. So I, you know I'm not a PE, I'm not the first person you're gonna get out in the plows, but you're exactly right. I measured in, that's 18 feet from my head in the truck to the front tip of the plow and the driver's side when it's all the way out, Like 18, so you've got this 25,000 pound vehicle with a can opener on the front, you know, in slippery conditions and people who didn't move their damn cars Like it is, and we need more drivers. And so part of this was really, you know, learning from our plow drivers, not, like I said, pretending that I can do their job, but it is really difficult. And so part of my public role was to say you know, knock it off. Folks were. You know, I'm sorry for the policy mistakes that I made and those are on me. Our drivers are doing the best job they can.

Marc Culver:

So what were some of the policy mistakes that you kind of fast up to?

Sean Kershaw:

We tried in early February of last year, late January, we tried a voluntary parking ban, purely voluntary, and we were gonna cover the city. And you know it was well intentioned, well thought out, never been done before. And in the middle of our second day we realized it. You know it wasn't working and the not working was on us. I talked to a reporter, tim Nelson, on my way home. I had been given information. I misunderstood the information. I gave it to him. It was wrong and so I was now on tape with giving out wrong information on how much we'd completed. And it was. You know it was not intentional on my point. I went home. I did not sleep that whole night. You know and you think about like, this is my last night on the job.

Sean Kershaw:

And I posted the next day on Twitter. You know, here's what we tried to do. Here's what happened. Here's, you know, genuine. You know we lifted and we dropped it and I tried to be transparent about what had happened and I was surprised that, rather than, you know, getting fired, getting beat up, people wouldn't know where I live in St Paul. You know, I think the public responded positively to the transparency, you know, and I don't even wanna say it was accountable, because it was fessing up on a really poorly done effort. Now, we learned in that process we pulled off a double snow emergency a month later, which we hadn't done in years and years, but there are clearly, like a bunch of things last year that I would have done differently.

Marc Culver:

In a normal, as you budget for your snow operations and I've always been curious to ask you this question as a St Paul resident how many snow emergencies do you budget for?

Sean Kershaw:

Well, there's a, so we budget for four in a calendar year. Now that is kind of funny math because, as your listeners will know, we will never not clear the snow because we don't have money you know ever.

Sean Kershaw:

Like. It's a health and safety, you know. So we will always be out there. Part of what we realized last year, in a concentrated way, was everything that were. Our entire approach to snow operations probably has to change, you know, from how we budget to it to the current system we have in St Paul. So we're currently in the process of reevaluating how we do snow emergencies from top to bottom, and so there may be some, you know, announcements coming soon about us learning from last year, because the truth of the matter is, people don't move their cars like they used to.

Sean Kershaw:

Snows are really different than they used to be. I mean, even the mayor talks about the fact that it would get cold. Pavement would freeze. You know we'd get snow. Pavement would warm up in February and March, in 22 and 23,. We had major rainstorms in December, january and February. We had 93 inches of snow. We had huge freeze thaws. I don't think our system is built for that. I don't think we have enough, you know, equipment or people. So we're looking at different models. That was a long answer.

Marc Culver:

No, no, I think it's a great answer and I think you know one of the interesting things is and it may, you know, make things a little more challenging than some of the other metropolitan areas in in a winter area is you are a twin city. You have this other city across the river from you that does things differently and you two are constantly being compared. Yeah you know um St Paul in Minneapolis and and I think there's some good to that, but there's also some challenges to that.

Sean Kershaw:

And I will say that our partners in Minneapolis are great partners you know, and we regularly communicate about.

Sean Kershaw:

you know especially. You know not just about projects but about weather and operations, and so they're really great partners. They have a very different system than we do. They've got different equipment. They do a different level of service than we do. The funniest thing, though, about the operations is that when I was at Snow Plow Operators training last year, we had the two major cities and then counties, and the county drivers came up to us and was like essentially said there's no way I'm plowing in an urban area because the suburbs that everybody complains. You know why can't we be like Maplewater West St Paul? They ban cars on their streets.

Sean Kershaw:

It is I you know if I can clear a street like that, you know it's pretty easy. So the, the core cities are really different from the suburbs and that leads to different outcomes. You know part of the reason we're looking at potentially new models.

Marc Culver:

Interesting. Well, I'm, I'll be interested to hear what those are and how that works out. But I do, I mean, you know, I'll admit it I've griped a few times and I'm sure every St Paul and Minneapolis resident has about snow removal. But I also recognize I mean I was a public works rectum in Roosevelt, which is on the north border of St Paul, and we we just don't have that magnitude of parking we have.

Marc Culver:

We have some on street parking, we have some issues where people aren't moving their cars. We have some areas that have dense parking but we do not have the issues to the magnitude that St Paul does. And for the most part, you know our homes and businesses in the suburbs, whether the first ring or second ring or whatever, and it's changing a little bit, but they have off street parking available to them. In St Paul, minneapolis, that's not the case in a lot of areas. There's not an option for these people and even if they have to move their car, where are they supposed to move them to? And I remember you guys, I think you like opened up a parking ramp downtown for people to park in, just to get them off the street.

Sean Kershaw:

It was, and it was wildly successful. That was one of the innovations we tried last year. I really credit the way the mayor has talked about snow is that every single department is involved and literally in St Paul every department is involved and it's an enterprise approach. That idea came from our planning and economic development director saying, hey, we got lots, let's open them up.

Marc Culver:

That's great, maybe, maybe he has a or she.

Sean Kershaw:

She has a public works fascination as well, you know she's glad that I have the job I have and we joke. I sent her a screenshot of a meeting that just said garbage meeting and of course you know, in my line of work it was about garbage and you know, for her garbage is is a modifier and for me it's an own.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and that's another. That's a whole other podcast maybe, but you know you talk about how our seasons and winter impacts so many things that we do and garbage and recycling collection is one of those things that is so adversely impacted by weather and alleys, the condition of their at the alleys and access in the set and the other, and you know bins out and you know getting knocked over by plows and stuff like that. It's yeah, it's a whole.

Sean Kershaw:

another thing If you do a Google search on plow, you know ramming garbage bins. There may have been some articles from St Paul in January of 2023. Yeah.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, so you know, let's let's back up into a more big picture thing and just kind of talk about, you know, your passion for public works and that, but you actually added this question as we were talking about what we're going to talk about. But so you know, what is it about the field of public works that makes it so important right now?

Sean Kershaw:

I think and of course I'm biased that it's really one of the most important fields you know in. All of you know the work of the country right now because, on the one hand, we're coming off of 50 to 75 years of disinvestment you know whether it's streets, roads that we're coming off this period of not investing what we should not keeping up and needing to catch up, and so that you know it's a, it's a big lift, it's a lot of money. There's a whole lot of work ahead in public work, certainly with the bills that have been passed. But the other thing that I appreciate about public works and it comes out of my past policy work was the amazing thing about public works, whether you are an employee or you're associated with it is you can have an impact every single day. You show up to work, literally every day you know you're fixing a pothole, you're designing a street project, even. You know our folks in IT and accounting like it's a gift to be able to show up to work and know that you did something that day that matters.

Sean Kershaw:

I think it's also and there's, you know, there's a. There's a plus and minus to what I'm going to say. I had a great moment getting ready for the job, when my husband works at a cigar shop in St Paul's. So he works at Stoges Ungrand and I was there hanging out having a cigar and all these old white men were sitting around and complaining about the potholes on Summit Avenue and they're, you know, they all pay $30,000 a year in taxes the pot summits a nightmare, literally.

Sean Kershaw:

that same day in the afternoon I was working at Wilder. I was at a community meeting and they were talking about an unrelated issue. When the meeting was over, they were looking out the window of where we were in Frogtown and saying that the potholes in the street and the snowplow is a sign that the city doesn't compare, doesn't care about, you know, brown people, people of color, immigrants, low income people. It's actually a real opportunity in any issue where the community from all different sides cares about it, and so that to me was this aha moment that yeah, we got horrible potholes to take care of in St Paul, but it's actually a help and we saw this in the sales tax that the community cares so much about it.

Sean Kershaw:

So in a time when polarization is off the charts and I know Summit Avenue was on paper it was controversial, I think if you look at the reality of it there was a lot of support. So public works is also one of these few areas in the public realm where there's a lot of commonality. Everybody agrees we got to fix the streets. Everybody agrees our street lights should work. You know our plowing should be better. So it's not just that the work is fun and cool. You know, if you're a nerd that way, it's that the work really, I think, matters at the point in history where we are now.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, yeah, and I think a lot of our listeners are the nerds out there will will understand and you touched on the the Summit Avenue project and I believe that was in reference to the proposed bike plan through that area and and some of our listeners will know what that is some, some won't, but it was a.

Marc Culver:

You know it was a.

Marc Culver:

It was a plan to to install and it's still a plan and it's still in the planning process for that to install a separated bike way down the median, mostly the median on the sides, yep, and you know a lot of the residents along summit were concerned about how that would impact the, the historic character of Summit Avenue and some of the issues with maybe parking and some things like that.

Marc Culver:

But you know that is an issue we face no matter what we do, no matter where we go. You know everybody loves the sidewalk, except for the sidewalk in front of their home and and you know we run into the across those issues. But, like you said, it is, it is a. You know it's heartwarming to see the community has come together over the the large, the big picture concept of these improvements and and this infrastructure and that, and for the most part. They do, you know they, they understand how it in improves the, the quality of their community and access and, and yes, so in Generally speaking, except for the property owners that you're impacting directly, there's a lot of public support for, for public works.

Sean Kershaw:

And in the case of this I mean in the supplies to any project, like the details also matter. I live in a home, I live in one of st Paul's oldest homes. History matters a lot to me, so as you're doing that, you can consider do, should we do granite curbs like it has? You know how do we even look at material colors and textures. So I think it is an important value and you know, as we do it, we will certainly work to preserve trees. We will certainly work to keep the historic character of of, you know again, our kind of Central Park in st Paul.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, you know, I made you do a little homework and then I haven't even touched on it yet, you know? Just just for the people who are listening. So, city of st Paul population a little over 300,000, 310,000 and and for 300,000 people.

Sean Kershaw:

Your public work staff is about it's a little short of 400 people and we have most of the traditional public works roles. We don't have water. St Paul regional water does the water in st Paul? We do recycling and garbage or it's coordinated through us, but we've got about 400 fte's.

Sean Kershaw:

Okay, and then your annual public works budget the annual budget is about 213 million for operating Capital. Right now is 62 million and that will. That includes sewer. We have a sewer utility but our street capital budget will double with the sales tax funds if we look out a few years. Yeah.

Marc Culver:

Biggest, and I think you've kind of touched on this in so many ways, but like what's been the most rewarding part of the role you've had, like what's the most memorable thing that that comes to your mind from that perspective certainly the.

Sean Kershaw:

You know I talked about how I love the work. Like I got to go into the sewers under West 7th Street like and I was I was shoveling. You know I was in there shoveling, as they call them, solids, but it's, you know it's the organic stuff.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, and that's a nice way to put it the organic stuff. Yes, it was exactly.

Sean Kershaw:

You know what people say it is and you know, of course, it was pretty intense. There were rats, you know, four feet from my head. I know I'm not claustrophobic now, but the guys were down there. You know, chat, chat away, we're laughing about.

Marc Culver:

You tweeted about this. Yes, you did a series of tweets on this and that you talk about this, yeah and they knew that.

Sean Kershaw:

Yeah, that work is pretty intense. It's really exhausting. I was spent, after, you know, 90 minutes and this is a day for them, but they know their work matters, like they fundamentally know their work matters, and so experiencing that has been really rewarding. So I think it's learning from the people that I do the work with and and the exhausting parts are obvious. You know snow, potholes, copper wire, politics politics. No, the exhausting stuff. Yeah but?

Sean Kershaw:

but knowing again that we've got this opportunity, you know, thanks to the voters, thanks to political leadership, to transform St Paul.

Sean Kershaw:

Yeah, and so we're starting with the sales tax. But how do we make our street lights better? How do we make the city more walkable? How do we, you know, how do we repair the harm that was done by 94? We're using a raised planning grant now in our historic rondo neighborhood and rondo in St Paul's neighborhood that the Interstate, you know, yep, cleared out, and so it is the ability to you know work on these projects that matter with, with really smart people, I mean I, I think civil engineering is glad that I'm not in the field, but I love working with the civil engineers we have, you know, with people and in all parts of the organization.

Marc Culver:

Are you willing to? Are you willing to go on Record as far as what your preference is for the 94 corridor?

Sean Kershaw:

Oh I well, I'm happy to talk about this because I don't really have a role I I think there's a huge opportunity to repair it. Yep, I think it's really important to listen to the community, because I was in a conversation with a White wealthy liberal organization Was trying to tell African-American elders in St Paul what was best for their community and that was stunning to watch, you know, just for the lack of self-awareness. And so a lot of what I suspect will happen is listened, you know, listen to elders, listen to people in the community now About what they would like it to be. I think the untold story in this and it goes right to kind of the nerd point is what the trench did was cut. It not only destroyed houses, took out a neighborhood, you know, destroyed a really vibrant street. It created this barrier in the neighborhood a big river a big, a big river in the trench.

Sean Kershaw:

And what I think is unspoken of and is really impactful is when we redo it. How do we not make that worse if, if we pull, put it, I'll just be honest if we pull an at grade Boulevard Through that and this is we controversial Does that make it even harder to go north to south than it does right now? Right.

Sean Kershaw:

Which I think is a really important question. If we narrow the trench, if we look at, you know, other options, can we pick up right of way? Can we all those bridges, you know, can we make them more pedestrian friendly? I think the key question for people on the advocacy side is what approach is most supported by the people who are impacted and what improves, what helps heal the connection north and south. So, whether it's a bridge or a narrower trench or the land bridge, you know so and I think practically, if I were to wager, I think that's where we will get. But you know, I'm not really a part of that. Nobody's asked my opinion on that.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, yeah. Well, I appreciate being the first to ask your opinion. I think it's a great opinion and I personally, again, I'm a simple guy. I actually lived in Frogtown for a good chunk of my my childhood and I certainly understand. I mean, I can't empathize with, with what you know that community has gone through. I wasn't there long enough to know, you know what it was before, obviously. So I'm excited about the fact that we're talking about how do we do things differently, how do we, how do we repair that? I just I question. I think we need to have a lot more conversations about what the right thing to do is, and I think getting rid of the freeway completely will have consequences that Could, could, could ripple through the whole city.

Marc Culver:

You know, yeah, and metro area, but, importantly, locally, throughout the whole city of. Well, where does that traffic go then, you know? So I think there's, there's something in between and I'm excited to hear more about that and more conversations about it.

Sean Kershaw:

So yeah, I think that's gonna clearly pick up, you know, in the next five years. Is that gets to some sort of whatever it is, some sort of recommendation.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, that's great. You know the. The last thing here is as we close out the, the, the podcast and and maybe turning a little bit away from public works, but I think it reflects your passion for your community is, you and your husband share your backyard with a few hundred people several times a year and I think that's pretty cool and I might have to check that out this summer. But talk about, talk about that.

Sean Kershaw:

So my husband and I live in an old, a pre-civil war era house and it's not fancy. It was, it was never fancy, but it's got a double lot and it's got a pre pioneer era, so an indigenous native era oak tree.

Sean Kershaw:

So it's got this white oak that's. We think a couple people have estimated it's probably 225 years old and it's just this beautiful, amazing oak and we like music and as we had kids and got old and couldn't go to concerts, we randomly had this idea and it was probably my husband's idea that what if we held concerts in our backyard and what if people contributed money and the money went to the band? And it was pretty naively understood and we started in 2014 and we were careful early on that this wasn't a money maker for us.

Sean Kershaw:

This was to bring people into our really cool neighborhood in West 7th and to support artists and because we weren't making money, the neighborhood got excited. Our neighborhood is kind of rebellious and I don't think we could have done this. Sorry to people in McRovland.

Marc Culver:

I don't think we could have done this in McRovland in Saint Paul. I don't disagree with you, or my neighborhood probably either.

Sean Kershaw:

So we've had as many as 575 people show up and it's again. It's a sign of the strength of the community. Our neighbor requires that the tenants in the house that he rent open up their backyard for concerts that, that's our overflow and we have all the laborers volunteered and we've probably had 12,000 people over the 50 shows we've done and raised probably over $110,000 for the band. So it's kind of a part time, unpaid job but we have a lot of fun doing it together.

Marc Culver:

So what's it called?

Sean Kershaw:

It's called Grand Oak Opry and so if you're on Instagram, it's at grand oak opry or grand oak opry dot com or Facebook, if people still use that. In fact, we're just now. Last night we finalized the schedule for the summer, so we'll be doing six shows in June, july and August of 2024.

Marc Culver:

Awesome. Well, I'm going to try to get to one of those. I can't wait to see that in action as a public works director. You've got to. I know when I was in Roosevelt and in Maple Grove prior to that, you know we had our special event permits and that was one of the things was. You know people would propose this set of the other and you know there's public impacts and parking and crowds and bathrooms and this set and the other. And it's kind of interesting, now that you're in your new role, you might have a different view of that.

Sean Kershaw:

We're very careful that we can't ever piss off the neighbors. You know that's being crude but we, literally we can't make the neighbors angry. We let people use our bathroom, which I think sort of freaks out Minnesotans, and you know we're fine, it works fine and I'm very careful now after the shows that all the recycling go in the recycling bin and all the garbage going, because people can bring in something to eat or drink as well. But it's a nice compliment to the daily work.

Marc Culver:

What kind of music do you generally highlight?

Sean Kershaw:

We will have all different types. We've had jazz and classical hip hop. You know R&B. We've had folk and bluegrass and you know rock and roll. We had 11 guitars on stage. The performer, nerdy, performed. He had an 11 or 12 person band, you know, on this patio and 575 people packed together to listen to him. I mean, it's a, it's, it's it's a and you're under this. You know gigantic oak tree.

Sean Kershaw:

And it's really credit to the musicians, who appreciate a listening audience. Make make really good money, which is important to us, and they're done by nine o'clock.

Marc Culver:

Yeah, that's great. That's great. Well, I look forward to checking that out. Anything you want to add before we close out the podcast here?

Sean Kershaw:

No, I'm thrilled. You know it's an honor to be here.

Marc Culver:

Well, I appreciate that it's an honor to have you. I've I've been wanting to meet you and have conversations with you for for a while and I love the fact that, at least in my memory, you've been the most approachable and, I would say, visible public works director at St Paul that that I can think of. So thank you for that and thank you for all you're doing for for St Paul and the public works world. All right, and one last thing before you go.

Marc Culver:

If you have enjoyed this episode as much as I have and the public in general, we ask that you help us spread the word. If you're on LinkedIn particularly, that's kind of our go to please comment, make a comment on it. And if you have any feedback on anything we talked about today, or if you have a musical band or group that you want to recommend for Sean's backyard, let let us know and help us spread the word. And obviously, and again, we are on YouTube, so check us out on YouTube as well. Thanks again for joining us and we will see you next time. Nerds out.

Public Works Director's Path to Advocacy
Career Transition and Public Works Funding
Public Works and Infrastructure Challenges
Snow Removal Challenges in Urban Areas
Importance of Public Works in Communities
Community Concerts in Historic St Paul
Help Us Spread the Word