Melissa Morton graduated with dual degrees in materials science and civil engineering from the University of California, Davis and has been employed in public works for 30 years. When the Assistant Public Works Director of the City of Benicia announced she was retiring, she asked Melissa about the job. Melissa says she always looked at these types of changes as opportunities to learn and grow. She had to learn quickly as her experience in water treatment and wastewater was minimal. Melissa now operates as District Manager of the Vallejo Sanitation and Flood Control District, which was also the result of a retirement vacancy. Now with almost three years under her belt at Vallejo, we asked Melissa what impacts the retirement wave has made on her current role and how she breathed new life into this roll at Vallejo.
How were you introduced to the water/wastewater treatment profession?
I have been working in the Public Works Field for 30 years, and had some exposure to small water and sewer districts under assessment districts at Contra Costa County. However, I didn’t work for a full service City until Benicia in 2010. When the Assistant Public Works Director retired a year later, the Public Works and Community Development Director asked me whether I was interested in her position. Because I am a firm believer in the opportunity to learn new things, I was excited about the chance to work in water and sewer and jumped headlong into an effort to complete a fee study for both the water and sewer utilities, which included master plans and the associated budget modifications for both utilities.
How have retirements impacted Vallejo’s leadership and what have been the highlights and challenges of building a new leadership team?
This time next year, all of the Leadership Team (department heads) but one will be new. Retirements have precipitated hiring a District Clerk, District Engineer, Finance Director, Director of Safety and Risk Management, and a Field Operations Superintendent. Two others are planning retirements in the next year. I am very fortunate to have inherited a tightly knit, hardworking team, and with each new addition to the leadership team, the entire team has been involved in assessing potential candidates. While I make the final decision, interactions between the top two or three candidates and the rest of the team are important to assure the group continues to be high-functioning in their efforts. All of the new department heads are very different from their predecessors, but collectively, the new qualities they bring to the table enhance the team as a whole.
What was your focus in the first few years as DM and what are your longer term goals?
In a goal setting session with our Board of Trustees in October 2014, we discussed several new programs with the Trustees and gained their support in pursuing all of these objectives. We have a new performance evaluation system that is goal-based being implemented, and we have completed the first year of a three year asset management program that will not only define staffing levels needed for ongoing plant maintenance, but will define replacement costs and schedules for infrastructure renewal. This important information will be incorporated into a long range financial plan, and rate study that will also establish a recommended reserve for the Trustees to consider for adoption. We are also in the process of branding to simplify the District’s name, logo and mission to clearly define to the community, the services we provide for improved customer service and accessibility.
What advice do you have for a new executive who takes on the top leadership post at a utility?
Get to know the managers and supervisors in the organization. Focus on their skills and their strengths, and tap into the areas where they have a passion for improving the organization. Make changes to how your utility does business very deliberately so that the team clearly understands the expectations. I want to be moving forward on changes or new initiatives, not backward because of unforeseen consequences.
Tell us about how you achieved the role of District Manager of Vallejo Sanitation and Flood Control and what does it take to be a utility leader today?
By training and experience, I am a Civil Engineer with 30 years of experience in public works projects and programs. That education and experience is the foundation I rely on when making decisions. However, being a leader is not something you absorb. I have read books, taken classes, hired an executive coach and studied people and their needs right alongside developing my technical skills. I have worked with, and for many good managers, visionaries and leaders. Each one has taught me positive and negative things that I have used to become the kind of leader I want to be. There is no better feeling than knowing that you have mentored someone to success, and you learn a lot about yourself helping them achieve that success.
What would you recommend to someone entering the water/wastewater profession who wants to become a top leader?
Learn how best to coach and mentor people; make considered decisions to move your organization forward; and spend the time and energy necessary to learn to be the kind of leader you would be excited to work for.