City Of Monterey’s Street Sweepers Work to Live

The Monterey peninsula in California is almost unimaginably beautiful. Next time you visit or see images of the city and its beaches, streetscapes, parks and protected Monterey Bay marine sanctuary, consider the effort that goes into keeping it all looking pristine. And besides making roads and walkways look clean, just how much does street sweeping enter into the bigger equation?

Bret Johnson, manager of the Streets & Utilities division in Monterey’s plans and public works department, says the answer is simple: “Stormwater.” By clearing debris daily from the high impact areas, and every two weeks in residential areas, his street sweepers make certain that debris doesn’t get washed into
the fragile ecosystem of the Monterey Bay.

Johnson manages a team of seventeen full-time and two part-time employees. Oh, wait—don’t forget to add another five mechanics and an administrative assistant in the mechanical division that his department took over at the beginning of the year. The Streets & Utilities division is responsible for street repairs, pavement and curb marking, as well as directional, parking and traffic signs and street lights and banners. His team also maintains the sanitary sewer and storm drain systems, along with flood control, and is responsible for removing graffiti, abating abandoned property left in the public right of way and picking up litter along certain routes.

Further, it maintains the paving on all finished roadways from one edge of the asphalt roadway to the other, as well as any drainage structures (property owners maintain their curbs, gutters and sidewalks, unless damage is caused by city-owned trees), prepares road surfaces for resurfacing projects, maintains signs and city-owned street lights and coordinates with the Parks Division in order to eliminate plants or trees that obscure visibility.

“Basically, we handle all facets of the city infrastructure from a maintenance standpoint,” Johnson explains, “We actually have two dedicated street sweepers, one of them handles the graveyard shift and the other starts early in the morning.” Together, they cover the 107 miles of roadways that crisscross the 8.62 square mile city, and Johnson remarks, “The night shift covers the big tourist attractions when there’s no traffic, and we sweep the residential areas during the day when they are less traveled.”

Keeping Things Going
The department’s sweeping equipment includes a new Allianz, an older TYMCO Regenerative Air Sweeper and a Mobile unit. Although he has been in his position only six years, Johnson has watched equipment getting more sophisticated, but has seen only some technological advances, “I haven’t seen any major breakthroughs. In fact, the old Mobile is a pretty darn good sweeper. It’s just tired.”

“Keeping the machines running can be challenging,” Johnson says, “and satisfying the residents can be a challenge, too. With our schedule, a sweeper calling in sick could mean the residential area doesn’t get swept for a month.” At the same time, meeting the residents’ expectations and making Monterey look good are his greatest rewards. Johnson says, “I like to contribute to the beauty of this town. And I like satisfying the residents’ needs—that’s my big joy of this job.”

That means that either he or a supervisor goes out and performs quality control checks, “I don’t get a lot of complaints about my sweepers, so I take that as proof that they’re doing well,” he says, only partly in jest. Like their boss, his sweepers take much pride in what they do.

Making ‘Lean’ Work
The department offers “24-hour stand-by,” so it’s available any time, day or night. When there’s a big event in town, Johnson will schedule extra sweepings to keep the streets clean so nothing gets into the bay. But the department brings on no temporary workers, “We make do with what we have.”

If Johnson’s budget were to get a big boost allowing him to add anything he wanted, he says, “A position or two certainly wouldn’t hurt. And it would be nice to have a new sweeper, and a small paving machine. But that’s probably never going to happen. I’ve learned to make do with all the budget constraints: we focus on the hot spots and take care of other things during the slow periods. We’re about as lean as we can be.” Even so, he says, “I’m not seeing the economy impacting the services we offer right now.”

Job Skills—Life Skills
A self-proclaimed “people person,” Johnson believes that trait has made him better at his job, “I like people, and I’m willing to listen to people’s issues at work and to the residents’ concerns. It sounds simple, but I think it goes a long way.”
He believes, “The job knowledge is just years of experience. You can learn from guys who have been sweeping for 25 years—they come up with good ideas, and I’m always willing to learn.” He tells the story of Leroy Thrash, the senior street sweeper who works the graveyard shift, “A 4- or 5-handicap golfer, he plays almost every day. Then he goes home, sleeps, and gets up to sweep and golf all over again.” Johnson sees Thrash as a lesson in finding your niche, knowing what makes you happy and going for it.

Johnson gets to witness first-hand the importance of good quality of life, both in finding a work/play balance, as well as the environment in which he surrounds himself, “I’m very grateful to be working here in such a beautiful area, and to be making my contribution to keeping it clean for people who live here and those who visit.”

For more about the City of Monterey: for visitors, for government offices

Story by Anne Biggs