Baltimore County voters may decide to change the minimum qualifications for the official leading the county’s Department of Public Works, per a proposed charter amendment.
A bill introduced by County Councilman David Marks and co-sponsored by Democratic Councilman Izzy Patoka would add a question to the 2022 ballot proposing to end the requirement that the county’s Public Works director be a professional engineer.
It also would codify the department’s name as the Department of Public Works and Transportation.
County law currently prevents the county from permanently hiring its acting director of Public Works, D’Andrea Walker, who has worked for more than a decade in managerial roles in state and local transportation and infrastructure departments but isn’t a professional engineer.
“You don’t need a professional engineer to run a department of transportation,” said Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who previously worked in the Maryland and U.S. transportation departments from 1997 to 2008. “You just need someone who has a strong background in transportation and planning. And that’s not necessarily engineering.”
Under current law, the county infrastructure head must be licensed as a professional engineer in Maryland with at least a decade of experience leading engineering projects.
The charter change, if passed, would retain that standard and add the alternative qualifications that the director may have at least 10 years of supervisory experience in infrastructure planning and construction or transportation engineering and management.
Deputy directors, however, still would be required to be licensed engineers. The county public works department’s current deputy is Lauren Buckler, a licensed professional engineer in Maryland.
The county appointed Walker as acting public works director in October, roughly seven months after she was hired to serve as deputy director for transportation. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. created her position within Public Works to develop, design and implement a multi-modal transportation plan focused on transit and walkability.
Before joining county government, Walker was the associate director for transportation in Prince George’s County. She also served as the chief administrative officer in the Maryland Transit Administration, the deputy administrator of operations for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and the deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of General Services.
She earned a Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Business Administration degree from Morgan State University, according to the county.
Public Works is responsible for designing, building and maintaining county infrastructure such as roads, bridges and the water system. Public Works also oversees county buildings and manages utilities and transportation planning.
Tim O’Ferrall, executive director of Maryland Society of Professional Engineers, believes it’s “critical for public safety” that the director be a licensed and experienced engineer.
“This individual has the final decisions on all engineering plans and designs as part of their everyday responsibilities” in addition to their managerial role, he said. “The recent catastrophe in Surfside, Florida highlights the importance of these qualifications.”
The collapse of Surfside’s Champlain Towers South condo building left at least 97 people dead last month after the town’s chief building official dismissed engineers’ concerns about the building’s structural safety.
Public Works manages the construction of only county-owned buildings, according to the county’s website; permitting and inspections of residential and commercial developments are handled by the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections in Baltimore County.
Walker may be the final signature on infrastructure project plans, but those plans are first reviewed and approved by licensed engineers before coming to her desk, she said.
“We are definitely committed to making sure we have qualified experts reviewing and inspecting plans and designs,” she said.
Marks said he was not motivated to file the bill because of Walker’s qualifications.
“You can have someone who’s extremely competent but doesn’t have an engineering background,” Marks said.
Olszewski “fully supports” the charter amendment as a “straightforward effort to modernize the requirements of the position,” according to county spokesman Sean Naron. He declined to answer whether the county intends to hire Walker should the charter amendment pass, citing “too many unknowns” about the outcome of the 2022 election and whether the amendment will be on the ballot at all. Olszewski, a Democrat, is running for reelection.
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“We’re proud of Acting Director Walker’s ongoing work to effectively manage this critical department,” Naron said in a statement.
It’s not unusual for public infrastructure directors to lack engineering expertise, Naron said. Neither Baltimore City nor Prince George’s County have certified engineers heading Public Works; both department heads come from business management backgrounds with experience coordinating transportation and infrastructure projects.
County law precludes an acting department head from serving longer than 60 days without County Council approval, but there is no deadline for when a vacancy must be filled.
The county’s infrastructure department has lacked a permanent director since its former head Steve Walsh retired in May last year and was replaced by Thomas Kiefer, who previously led the department’s Bureau of Engineering and Construction.
Walsh retired after 30 years in county government, first as a water resources engineer in 1990 until he was appointed Public Works director in 2016.
Walker rose to the position after Kiefer retired in October, and she’s listed as both the deputy director of transportation and acting department director on the county’s website.
Walker oversees an operating budget of $4.5 billion and around 1,000 employees. Under her purview, the department has a federal obligation under a 2005 consent decree to finish more than $800 million in sewer improvements to mitigate sewer overflows (to date, the county has spent almost $795 million on improvements, according to Public Works). Her annual pay is $188,698, Naron said.