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Woodbury Citizens Academy steps into the boots of a public works employee

Woodbury Citizens Academy participant Shawn Sorrell checks out the underbelly of a Woodbury Public Works vehicle March 16, 2017. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)1 / 8
Danger, says a sign on a Woodbury Public Works vehicle that is essentially a giant snow blower. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)2 / 8
Warren Tracy, the city's engineering and public works project coordinator, explains with Doug French which items can cause a host of city plumbing issues when flushed down the toilet. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)3 / 8
Woodbury public works employee Doug French gives an example of how tissue paper doesn't break down when flushed down a toilet. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)4 / 8
Woodbury Public Works employee Debra Goble explains how a city snow plow truck sprinkles salt to the roads. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)5 / 8
In addition to the public works department's vehicles, the Woodbury Citizens Academy also got to play around with the inside of a police squad car. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)6 / 8
Mike Garvin from the Woodbury Public Works Department explains to Kevin Groebner and Sue Harvey how his department uses a robot armed with a camera to inspect sewer lines and municipal pipes. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)7 / 8
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Keeping the city streets clear, the sewers flowing and drinking water safe can sometimes be a thankless job. Most of the time, the work of a Woodbury Public Works Department employee goes unnoticed. That is, until there's a problem.

That was part of the takeaway Thursday, when a group of Woodbury citizens and future leaders got a chance to step into the boots of a Public Works staffer.

With graduation just around the corner, the Woodbury Citizens Academy held its sixth session of the year at the city's Public Works facility.

After touring the Woodbury Public Safety Building on March 9 to delve into what makes local government tick, Thursday's class offered an in-depth look at what happens behind the scenes in one of the city's most underlooked departments.

Public Works leaders guided the class in a lecture-style discussion on the range of responsibilities the department fulfills, such as plowing snowy roads, managing storm flood ponds, inspecting sewers and working with private utility companies.

Warren Tracy, an engineering and Public Works project coordinator with the city, also led the class through a number of what-if scenarios, like what a snowplow driver should do when it snows on a garbage pickup day in order to balance the need to clear the roads and avoid residents' complaints if their bins are knocked over.

Another scenario he presented is what to do if a resident complains about a water pond that's dried up and no longer looks pleasing. The answer: leave it alone.

Participants also got a crash course on how the city manages its sewer and water systems.

They also got a glimpse into some of the recent issues the Public Works Department has observed with items being flushed or poured down drains and toilets.

The department noted in late January that several municipal sewage pumps had become clogged due to improperly disposed materials. Those items include tissue papers, cosmetic wipes and dental floss.

"We even found a beach towel," Public Works employee Doug French said.

Woodbury resident Simi Patnaik said she was surprised at the amount of work goes on behind the scenes.

"I had no real conception of what the city is responsible for," she said. "I think it's valuable to know how much the city employees do in the background without us knowing."

After the lecture, the Public Works Department opened up its garage where participants got to touch, honk, flip on the lights and play with the controls of several Public Works vehicles.

"Man, I want one of these," said Shawn Sorrell, a Woodbury resident and Citizens Academy participant. He was playing with the controls of a shiny white city tractor and earlier tested the controls, lights and intercom of a Woodbury police squad car that was also in the Public Works garage.

Sorrell said he decided to join the program after moving from the East Coast to Woodbury a few years ago because he wanted to gain a better understanding of how he can play a role in the community.

"I cannot be a part of solutions if someone's talking about doing new initiatives or planning that's going on in my community," he said. "This is my way of doing that because I'm not that familiar with Woodbury."

A number of the Woodbury Citizens Academy graduates go on to serve on various city government advisory boards and other community organizations, said Claudia Millington, the program's director. Some even start initiatives of their own.

The program has seen more than 160 people go through the program since starting about seven years ago.

The Woodbury Citizens Academy — co-sponsored by the Woodbury Community Foundation, the Woodbury Lions Club and the city — will be holding its graduation later this month at Eagle Valley Golf Course.

Millington said the organization plans to run the next academy in 2018. Those interested can contact her at cmillington@cortrustbank.com.

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