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Eye On St. Paul Q&A: Sean Kershaw, public works director

20December 2021

Sean Kershaw has always had jobs that centered on the public good.

He’s worked in St. Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, led the Citizens League and was a vice president of the Wilder Foundation focusing on leadership and equity. Kershaw said his experience has prepared him to lead a department that touches people’s everyday lives like no other job he’s held.

Eye On St. Paul interviewed Kershaw a few days after the Dec. 9 storm that dumped 9 inches of snow or more across the city.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: Are snow emergencies the worst part of being public works director?

A: I actually love all the work of public works. When we bought our house in the ‘fe90s, I actually went down and printed out the sewer map to our house. It was fascinating. I’m a map geek and we have all the city maps. All the work of public works is really, really fun and interesting to me.

Part of the reason I like it so much is our work literally touches the people of St. Paul more than any other department — sidewalks, streets, sanitary and storm sewers. All the things that we do matter to people on a daily basis, and I’ve never had a job that had this much relevance to people in any kind of a tangible way.

Q: What is the best part of the job?

A: Seeing how a team effort works on a problem. We had a problem last year where there was a retaining wall for a street that collapsed. And one of the amazing moments was this hourlong call where we had bridge engineers and maintenance staff and route engineers and a P.R. person all talking about what we do about this wall collapse.

We had people disagree with each other. We had some wild ideas put out there. It was just this really great problem-solving exercise, and it ultimately did help to solve the problem.

Q: You’re not an engineer. What perspective do you bring to the job?

A: What I bring is two things: I think I bring a love for the work and for St. Paul. But what I also bring is a sense for how our work affects people and how we think about our work in those terms.

How is our work experienced by people? In some ways, there is no better example than a snow emergency. Or when potholes need to be filled or deciding which street we need to do next. How do we think about it from the public’s standpoint?

Q: A major looming issue for the city is getting ahead on St. Paul’s crumbling streets. Is that the biggest challenge right now?

A: Certainly, if you were to say what do I want to accomplish in the next 3, 4, 5 years, it is a sustainable funding source for St. Paul streets. In the moment right now — with all this federal money available and potentially a state surplus — it’s a combined strategy of what to do with the short term and the money that is in front of us and how do we build to a sustainable financing system that’s good for the next 10, 15, 20 years?

Q: Another hot-button issue is bike lanes. People either want more, or they think you’re doing too much. What do you do?

A: One of the things the Citizens League taught me is how do you take a contentious issue and find common ground. Bicyclists and drivers need pavement that’s in good condition. The biggest issue that our bicyclists face is the lack of quality pavement to ride on. Both sides absolutely agree on safety. And dedicated bike lanes are safer.

So, there’s a lot of common ground there that we can take advantage of.

The bad news is our streets need a lot of work. The good news is as we reconstruct a street, we can build in these new capacities. We can narrow the driving lanes. We can make the crossing lanes shorter. We can add bicycle facilities. We can improve storm water.

Q: After all the contentious history of garbage in St. Paul, has St. Paul put its trash battles behind it for good? And are you glad the city isn’t starting up organized trash collection now?

A: We have an Ad Hoc Garbage Advisory Committee that will have its first meeting on Jan. 6. This is a group of residents who will help inform and provide feedback of what’s working what’s not, how can we improve the garbage services when we go into our next contract in 2023.

I’m grateful to [former Public Works Director] Kathy Lantry for many things, including taking on this issue.

In all seriousness, I think the pandemic — with so many people working from home — has fundamentally changed many issues that are close to home like this. The conversation will be different going forward, and I think very productive.

Q: How is Grand Oak Opry going? [Kershaw and his husband Tim Hawkins co-produce the concert series and have raised tens of thousands of dollars for local artists.]

A: We did four shows this summer [down from previous years]. And I think it was more a combination of COVID and us doing a construction project at our house. But it’s a nice break. I love the job and all aspects of it, but to be able to do something that’s different is nice. We will be back next summer as well.

Q: Any advice for people before the next snow emergency — and the angry phone calls demanding snow-covered cars get towed?

A: I remind people that a snow emergency lasts for 96 hours. We use all that time to do push backs and clean-ups. [The last snow emergency] was a lot of snow and we had a lot of clean-ups to do. I just ask people to be patient.

I don’t mean we couldn’t have done it better. But with a snow this big, there are only so many tow trucks that are available. One of the things we’ll do with this snowstorm is an after-event evaluation. What are some things we can do better?

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