Woodside Deputy Town Manager and Town Engineer Paul Nagengast has said more than once to an Almanac reporter that he has room for improvement. Maybe now that he has decided to bring his career in public works to an end after 30 years -- he is 58 and has been in Woodside Town Hall for eight years -- he'll be able to concentrate on those improvements he said he has room for.
As a longtime government employee responsible for the condition of key systems like sewers, roads and bridges, Mr. Nagengast has had room to develop a skill in evenly articulating the issues when interacting with the public. It's most important, he said, that communications about issues are accurate.
Also important is knowing when and when not to speak, he said. When Town Hall employees gather for Town Council meetings in Independence Hall, Mr. Nagengast and his colleagues spend much of the time with their mouths closed, speaking for the most part only when asked to, and then with an emphasis on neutral fact-based language.
The public has reservoirs of misunderstanding and mistrust of government, Mr. Nagengast said, then provided an example of how such an attitude might be expressed: "No matter what, if you're government, you're in my way."
It's a big challenge, he said, to persuade people to be comfortable with government. His message to the public: "We're actually here for you. You are our customers. Yes, we're the only show in town, but we're here for you. How can we help you?"
Cleaning the garage
Mr. Nagengast, who retires Nov. 17, is a native of Dayton, Ohio. He spent 10 years in finishing college, he said, first at Miami University of Ohio, where he focused on psychology, and then the University of Southern Maine, where he studied ocean engineering. In that decade, he also found time to hitchhike across the country and work as a short-order cook, he said.
His public works career began in Los Angeles, and then led to Beverley Hills, Yucaipa, Half Moon Bay and Woodside. As public works director at Half Moon Bay, he was interviewed in 2005 by NPR for his take on a dead humpback whale that had washed up on a beach.
Mr. Nagengast lives in Half Moon Bay, is married and has a son. Asked what he plans to do in retirement, he said, metaphorically, that he'll be cleaning out his garage. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "You throw out old things and you definitely make room for new things."
Asked about Woodside residents and their participation in local government, Mr. Nagengast called them engaged, knowledgeable and passionate.
Asked whether his Woodside experiences informed him about the human condition, Mr. Nagengast offered the notion that people are unpredictable. "Just when you think you know (something), you find out you don't know," he said.
An example: To correct a longstanding safety issue for elementary school students walking along narrow Mountain Home Road, a traffic analysis proposed a crosswalk at Cedar Lane. The idea had community support, Mr. Nagengast recalled.
But differences emerged in the details. Equestrians said they wanted a diagonal crosswalk, but traffic engineers said such an orientation would put students' backs to traffic. Others said an up-to-date crosswalk, with its bright warning signs and road markings, would undermine the town's claim to rural character. Cedar Lane residents said a crosswalk could complicate their entry to Mountain Home Road. In the end, the idea was shelved.
"It's hard to predict what outcomes you have," Mr. Nagengast said. "That's why it's important to have a process, a public process. It's very important."
Some of that process has found its own path: social media. People can have a full-blown discussion before they even get to the public hearing, Mr. Nagengast said. Figuring out how Town Hall can take advantage of this is a challenge, he said. People can come to a meeting having already made a decision. "I'm not saying that's wrong," he said. "It's just the way it is."
During his tenure in Town Hall, Woodside has markedly improved its permitting process, which had been viewed as inconsistent, biased, punitive, lengthy and unfriendly, Mr. Nagengast said.
With the new system, known as TrakIt, applicants can monitor staff comments online, he said. Reviews of permit applications have been shortened dramatically, consistency in interpreting town code has become a priority, and Town Hall now has a table and chairs for applicants and staff to discuss issues "in a more relaxed environment," Mr. Nagengast said.
He was also instrumental in crafting a $12 million five-year capital improvement plan for the town's latest budget. Among the plan's top priorities: repair and/or rehabilitate four bridges, the storm-drain system and a path along the south side of Woodside Road between the elementary school and Roberts Market.