'Diva of Debris' cleans up system

The Baltimore Sun

Valentina Ukwuoma marches down an alley in East Baltimore, shaking her car keys in the air and yelling to get the attention of a city employee standing in the street about a half block away.

Ukwuoma, who was named director of Baltimore's Bureau of Solid Waste last year, is upset about a blue mattress tossed on the sidewalk. She wants to know why the area supervisor hasn't picked it up. Seconds later, she's leaning on the same supervisor for a pile of tires in a back lot.

"You can't say, 'Oh, she's in a nice, posh air-conditioned office,' " said the 42-year-old Ukwuoma, who immigrated from Nigeria in 1989 and is the first woman to lead the city's trash operation. "I'm out there. Just like I can put on a suit, I can take it off and put on jeans."

For the past 16 months, Ukwuoma has worked both in the alleys of Baltimore and also in the conference rooms of the Abel Wolman Municipal Building next to City Hall, helping to set the broad policies behind Mayor Sheila Dixon's "cleaner and greener" mantra.

As Baltimore's chief garbagewoman, she helped the city transition to single-stream recycling - which allows residents to consolidate their recyclables for a single pickup - increased by 320 miles the amount of street sweeping completed each week and reduced the average time it takes to address a complaint for a dirty alley or yard by seven days.

The bureau's current budget, at $77 million, is about even with last year's.

"I wish we had five more of her," said Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, who oversees the CitiStat program in which Department of Public Works employees such as Ukwuoma are grilled on efficiency every week.

Born in Umuahia, Nigeria, Ukwuoma graduated from the University of Calabar with a degree in philosophy. Her parents, both teachers, and the rest of her family still live in Nigeria. She followed her husband, an auditor, to the United States in 1989. She received a degree in management from the College of Notre Dame in 2005.

A tall, striking woman, Ukwuoma has a deep, lyrical accent that is occasionally hard to follow. When she applied in 1991 to be a recycling inspector for the city - a position she found in a classified ad - she remembers what her new boss said after the interview: "I don't think I understood everything you said, but I'm going to hire you."

Ukwuoma started under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as the city began a pilot program to try to get people to recycle. She said she would visit as many as 15 neighborhood association meetings a week to spread the word about that program. She has also served as an analyst for solid waste, assistant chief of maintenance, and a division chief in code enforcement in the city's housing department.

Dixon has referred to Ukwuoma as one of the city's "Divas of Debris," a trio that also includes Tonya Simmons, the city's recycling coordinator; and Celeste Amato, director of the Initiative for a Cleaner Greener Baltimore. Together, the three are shaking up an area of city government that has received significantly more attention under Dixon.

"She has everybody thinking upside down," Amato said of Ukwuoma. "She threw everything she had into it and just pulled it apart and challenged everybody who works for her."

The mayor focused on making the city cleaner during her political campaign last year and continues to raise the issue at almost every public event. To Dixon, a clean alley or sidewalk is physical evidence of the pride people take in their neighborhood. That pride, she has argued, can ultimately translate into lower crime and a better quality of life.

Recycling is up more than 20 percent since the start of the single-stream system, according to the city's numbers. Parks are being cleaned more aggressively. And while city sidewalks and back lots are far from perfect, most neighborhood leaders have a sense, at least, that they are better. Many attribute the progress to Ukwuoma.

"She's tireless," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents Northeast Baltimore and calls Ukwuoma directly when her constituents complain about garbage problems in their neighborhood. "She takes a lot of pride in it, and it makes us feel proud."

Ukwuoma, who has four children, including three teens, has developed a reputation for finding inefficiencies. Shortly after taking over, she reassigned the division chiefs who report to her, distributing their workload more evenly. She changed collection routes, schedules and crew sizes, increasing the number of graffiti crews by reducing the number of workers on each team, for instance.

And then there are the site visits.

Ukwuoma seems to relish getting out of the office, slinking her sport utility vehicle behind trash trucks and walking the city's alleys. When a city driver forgoes his seat belt, she jots down the truck's number. When a team cruises past a bag of trash, leaving it on the sidewalk, she picks up her cell phone.

Both Dixon and Ukwuoma have focused on solid-waste supervisors, who are assigned to monitor collection routes in a given area. It is the supervisors, Dixon has said, who should call in when trashed furniture is on the street or an unregistered car rusts away on a parking pad.

Ukwuoma's aggressive approach has rubbed some people the wrong way. Earlier this year, Glenard S. Middleton Sr., director of the Maryland Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that the shift changes and employee transfers should have been negotiated with the union. "We have a contract, and she doesn't abide by that contract," Middleton said. "It's been a battle."

Joseph Kolodziejski, Ukwuoma's predecessor, who spent decades working for the Solid Waste Bureau, said balancing the interests of the mayor's office, the unions and constituents is just part of the job.

"In her position, she really has to bend a lot for City Hall. But she has her own mind, too, and she can say, 'Listen, nobody wants to be around a yes-man,' " Kolodziejski said in an interview earlier this year. "I knew she had an independent mind and could not be coaxed one way or the other."

Ukwuoma hates excuses - something she repeatedly comes back to when discussing her 18 years with the city. The way Ukwuoma sees it, every soda can and plastic bag strewn across the city's streets can be laid at her doorstep.

"It's a change of mentality. It's a change of culture," she said. "There are no excuses not to perform at a higher level."

John Fritze is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad