When Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) appointed Christopher Shorter the director of the DC Department of Public Works (DPW) in July 2015, she took a calculated risk. Shorter replaced William Howland, an experienced, well respected incumbent who had served multiple mayors. As Shorter marks almost two years in this position, reviews of his work are positive – though many note that there is still much to be done.
A Detroit native decided to pursue a career in public service at an early age. He earned degrees at Florida A&M and the University of Pittsburgh and then launched into a professional career that has included stints at the New York Port Authority (helping to rebuild the World Trade Center), CEO at DC’s Department of Health, and chief of staff at the District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
What Has Shorter Accomplished?
While DPW is perhaps best known for its role in snow removal and trash and recycling pickup, the agency leads a wealth of other initiatives. Shorter has continued DPW programs such as MuralsDC, while initiating new ones like DC Clean Alleys and the Great Graffiti Wipeout to make DC neighborhoods safer and more attractive. Recognizing the physical toll that DPW’s work may take on staff, he’s also working to establish career paths for employees within the department.
Under Shorter’s watch, snow-clearing is becoming automated – and greener. A comprehensive winter maintenance plan that includes web-tech tracking of all snow plows – city owned and contractor – allows DPW to determine their location and how much salt they’re using. As importantly, this technology creates efficiencies and allows the plows to report on road conditions in real time, so more plows can be dispatched to an area as needed. This same communication technology is now being applied to garbage and recycling trucks.
Technology is also helping DPW be more environmentally friendly when it comes to deicing roads. Did you notice the reddish hue to some of the salt that was applied on roads during the snow this past March? That was beet juice, which when mixed with salt helps the salt stick to the road, reducing runoff and the amount of salt that needs to be applied.
Shorter has implemented efforts in DC recycling and waste diversion to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills or incineration. The Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014 was introduced under the leadership of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Through this legislation DPW gained an Office of Waste Diversion (OWD) that is largely responsible for ensuring that DC meets a goal of diverting 80 percent of waste away from landfills and incineration. The date for this goal will be determined through a forthcoming zero-waste plan that is mandated by the legislation.
The OWD has taken on a variety of activities, including hosting an organic waste summit in May 2016 and organizing a “Feeding the 5,000” event to educate the public about food waste. Some 6,750 residents and visitors attended the event and feasted on delicious food that would have otherwise ended up as waste. Earlier this year DPW released the Fiscal Year 2015 and 2016 Solid Waste Diversion Progress Report, which documented that DC’s current waste diversion rate is only 21 percent, far below the 80 percent goal. Shorter acknowledges that the District has a long way to go when it comes to waste diversion. “That was a humbling report, but transparency is important to us. The 80 percent goal is doable, but it will require significant leaps forward. For example, we want to move into curbside composting, but we need to identify a place to process the compost – either in the District and/or beyond. We’re also very interested in Pay/Save As You Throw models that have proven very successful in other cities whereby residents can save money as they produce less trash.”
Meanwhile DPW and OWD are taking steps toward increasing waste diversion. A Mayor’s List of Recyclables has been published that details 70 recyclable products that will standardize recycling across the residential and commercial sectors. This spring, DPW-sponsored composting dropoff sites are being established in each ward and associated with farmers’ markets. Despite this progress, the proposed fiscal 2018 budget includes cuts to OWD in staffing and operational costs.
What Do Others Think?
Councilmember Cheh is a fan, noting, “Director Shorter is responsive, open to innovation, eager to improve the agency’s performance, and I want to continue to work collaboratively with him.” Tommy Wells, director of the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE), is impressed. “Chris has brought fresh energy and innovative thinking to DPW. He’s looking at historic challenges through a new lens, including working with DOEE to identify areas that can be designated and planted as meadows rather than being mowed. His leadership has put DPW at the forefront of sustainable waste management, an integral element of the District’s ongoing efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase resilience in the face of climate change.”
Mayor Bowser remains unfailing in her support. Her Office of Communications notes, “Director Shorter has an exceptional management background. With his high level of management experience, Chris has the ability to lead any organization regardless of scale or mission.”
Even the environmental community is pleased with Shorter’s work so far, though wary about waste diversion efforts. Chris Weiss, executive director of the DC Environmental Network, notes, “Under Shorter’s leadership, DPW seems to be moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction. We appreciate the transparency about DC’s recycling rates and acknowledgment of the challenges we face. But DPW will need to make some big changes in the next two years to get DC on track toward better waste diversion. Mayor Bowser’s proposed FY18 recycling program budget cut reflects a tepid commitment to meeting the recycling goals of the District’s Sustainable DC plan.”
And Shorter? He seems very happy to have ended up at DPW. “DC’s population is growing by some 900 residents per month,” he observes. “For DPW, this means that we need to continue to provide all of our services to more people with approximately the same amount of money. I work with 1,400 incredibly dedicated employees. We’re all committed to providing equity to the District, so that all parts of the city look the same and have the same level of services. It’s a real pleasure to help DPW fulfill that commitment.”
Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and a blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter @DC_Recycler. She is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club and Green America, but her statements are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of either organization.