Quiet public servant will be missed

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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When Earl Smith leaves Decatur in a few days to become director of engineering in League City, he will leave behind a city that is much better for his work over the past eight years.

Decatur residents may not know what a valuable role Earl played in the city’s present and future. I had the opportunity to work closely with him on the Decatur Water Board and the Economic Development Corp.

Roy J. Eaton

Roy J. Eaton

Let me tell you one story about Earl’s dedication to Decatur. A few years ago on a cold February day, snow covered the ground and city offices were closed because of the weather.

The EDC was facing a deadline on a proposal for a major new industrial prospect. Earl was key in the project because it would have required a major and expensive upgrade of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The Building Services building was locked solid, but Earl was there – along with City Manager Brett Shannon, then-Mayor Joe Lambert, then-Economic Development Director Jody Adams and me, as we worked for hours to complete the proposal. There were telephone calls to consulting engineers and the site selector for the company. We knew we were competing with Hillwood’s Alliance project for the factory.

In the end, we didn’t get it – and neither did Alliance – because the company apparently decided not to do the project.

When he came to Decatur, unlike some on the city staff, Earl moved here so he could get to know the people and understand the city’s needs for the future. He developed important relationships with county commissioners Danny White and Kevin Burns so the city and the county could work together on street paving projects. You need look no further than the repaving of Deer Park Road, Thompson Street and Eagle Drive to see the benefit of that partnership.

When the water board decided to buy land for a new water tower to replace the aging Thompson Street tower, it was Earl who stepped up to handle the delicate details of the purchase.

One key to Earl’s success was his early bonding with City Manager Brett Shannon. Both can often be seen outside city hall – smoking, of course – and discussing municipal issues. That relationship made city projects hum with efficiency.

And I know it may be just me, but do you ever see a dirty City of Decatur service truck? Nope, they are always clean, and Earl insisted on that. Also notice the beautiful lawn at the Civic Center and the manicured parks, all maintained by talented crews and managers under Earl’s supervision.

Decatur has been plagued with water line breaks this year. All have been on the water line between Lake Bridgeport and the water treatment plant. Whether during working hours or in the middle of the night, Earl is at the scene to encourage and support the city’s public works crews.

Many Decatur residents, frustrated with their dealings with the Development Services Department, have found a friend in Earl, who goes out of his way to help them negotiate the sometimes tricky and hard-to-understand city regulations.

With his flowing mustache and imposing stature, Earl Smith was the friendly face of the city’s Building Services department. I have often said that Earl is the person who always tries to “make things work.”

The EDC and Chamber of Commerce recognized his service several years ago by presenting him the “Outstanding Public Service” award.

Earlier this year, my wife took on the task of getting a few direction signs in parts of the city to point visitors toward Eagle Stadium, the police and fire stations, the Heritage Museum and other points of interest. The project was complicated because most of the streets are also state highways, and the Texas Department of Transportation must approve the plan.

Earl stepped in to help her and made the proposal to TxDOT as required. That was in March – and despite the fact the plan will not cost the state anything, the bureaucratic jungle that is TxDOT still hasn’t approved the plan, eight months later. So first-time visitors to Decatur who are looking for the football stadium and think it might be at the high school are out of luck.

My colleague Bob Buckel is now on the story, so maybe the harsh light of publicity will make things happen before football season is over. But don’t hold your breath.

All of us who have had the opportunity to work with Earl will certainly miss him. But while he has been here, he has developed an outstanding support staff in the streets, public works, water, wastewater and parks departments – and I know they will carry on with talent and determination.

Still, we will miss the big guy with the mustache.

Roy Eaton is publisher of the Wise County Messenger.

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