West Valley City’s public works director of 33 years calls it a careerAug 09, 2021 01:39PM ● By Darrell Kirby
The West Valley City Public Works Department houses several city services including street maintenance, sanitation and engineering. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)
By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]
It’s rare to find someone who has worked for the same employer since Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president.
But after 38 years, Russell Willardson is retiring from West Valley City.
The 65-year-old leaves as the city’s public works director for the last 33 years, but has held several positions in the department since joining it a mere three years after West Valley became an incorporated city.
“It seems like the right time to go. We have a good team that’s ready to step in and take over,” Willardson said.
He started as a 20-something design engineer, then was a city engineer until 1988 when he was appointed public works director after the death of his predecessor.
The public works department oversees streets, storm drains, engineering of public and private infrastructure, city buildings and vehicles, and sanitation.
Water and sewer service, often the main functions of public works operations in other cities, are handled by independent districts in West Valley City.
Willardson has seen a lot change over the years as West Valley City has matured. “What we do in public works is a lot of construction and there’s certainly been a lot of that over the years,” he said.
Technology has become an integral part of public works operations during that time. “We didn’t have computers sitting on our desks when I started working,” Willardson recalled. “I remember the secretaries sitting at a typewriter typing construction specifications with carbon paper.”
Today, Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, and other digital programs enable public works staff to look at information about the city’s infrastructure on a computer screen.
Street maintenance has improved with better methods and materials. Traffic signals have gone from being controlled by timers for signal cycles to now using pavement sensors and radar to guide when and how often the lights change based on traffic flow.
If you think 38 years is a long time with the city, “there are a few others who have been here longer than I have,” Willardson said.
To put the sheer length of Willardson’s tenure with West Valley City in perspective, just weeks before he was hired, flood waters from record snowmelt were channeled into a makeshift river down State Street in neighboring Salt Lake City. Scott Matheson was governor of Utah. There have been six governors since then, some serving multiple terms. There have been seven U.S. presidents since Willardson joined the city. Utah had just half of today’s population of 3.2 million. Likewise, West Valley’s resident count has nearly doubled from the 72,000 nearly four decades ago when the fledgling city was trying to gain its footing.
His retirement plans? “Take time to pursue hobbies and spend more time with my grandchildren,” Willardson said. “I don’t have any major plans to do anything. I’m not going to go travel the world or anything like that.”
The city council in July approved the promotion of deputy public works director Dan Johnson to replace Willardson. Public records show that Willardson earned a base salary of $179,000 as of last year.