New DPS director reflects on career: ‘A dream job’

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison-Park News | Published May 22, 2023

 Sean Ballantine, a resident of Madison Heights, has been with the Department of Public Services for around 20 years, and recently became the DPS director. The DPS maintains the city’s roads, sidewalks, water lines, sewers, parks, and facilities.

Sean Ballantine, a resident of Madison Heights, has been with the Department of Public Services for around 20 years, and recently became the DPS director. The DPS maintains the city’s roads, sidewalks, water lines, sewers, parks, and facilities.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


MADISON HEIGHTS — Sean Ballantine was just a kid in elementary school when he first dreamt of a career in public works.

“I used to watch the city garbage trucks, back when the city did its own garbage. And in the fall, I would watch the ‘leaf-suck trucks,’ as I called them as a kid. I thought that must be such a cool job, but it never occurred to me that you could really do that,” he said. “I thought that I would do something more traditional, like teaching.”

Fast-forward to today, and Ballantine, who grew up in Madison Heights and now lives there with his wife, is the new director of the city’s Department of Public Services.

He has been with the DPS for around 20 years, beginning as a part-time seasonal laborer doing landscaping for the city in the early 2000s, not long after he graduated from Lamphere High School.

“I fell in love with it, like a duck taking to water, working seasonal three or four years,” he said. “Then I applied for a full-time job when the opportunity arose. I didn’t get it the first time, but then I got the next one. It’s been full speed ever since.”

Over the years, he also served as an analyst/planner and supervisor for the department, leading up to his roles as deputy director, acting director, and now, director.

For the 2023-24 fiscal year, the DPS budget has been set at $28 million across all department funds. Ballantine will manage this budget and directly oversee staff working in such divisions as utilities, streets and facilities, and the motor pool, overseeing the city’s vehicle fleet.

DPS workers are in many ways the unsung heroes of a community, he said. Their contributions to a town are indispensable — from drivable roads and walkable sidewalks, to drinkable water and parks that are safe and clean.

When a firefighter pumps water from a hydrant, they rely on infrastructure serviced by DPS. When an ambulance races to someone in need, they depend on well-maintained roads to get there. And when the worst of Michigan weather hits, DPS leads the charge, clearing snow and ice from streets and parking lots.

“Our work is stuff you take completely for granted,” Ballantine said. “It’s only when things go wrong that you start thinking about it.”

The department also includes the city’s recreation division, as well as the Active Adult Center. Ballantine oversees their operations, too. Ultimately, each department in the city benefits from DPS, since the department maintains the buildings, grounds and vehicles for them all, including City Hall, the court, library, police station and both fire stations.

That may sound like a lot to manage, but Ballantine is no stranger to staying busy.

Years ago, when he was first promoted to analyst/planner, it was contingent upon obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a set amount of time. So, after graduating from Lamphere High, he obtained as many credits as he could from Oakland Community College in Royal Oak, with additional classes in Southfield and Auburn Hills, and then transferred to Baker College for an accelerated track earning a degree in business administration.

His time at OCC was in person, working during the day and attending class on nights and over weekends, all while remaining on call for after-hours overtime. Meanwhile, he was also settling into a new home, planning a wedding and navigating married life.

Now, as the DPS director, he is focused on finishing up the Civic Center project that includes a renovated City Hall and library, and the construction of a new Active Adult Center. He is also planning water main and road reconstruction projects, with an eye toward mitigating the local road impacts from the ongoing work at Interstate 75.

“Every day is a new challenge — you never know what it will bring,” Ballantine said. “We fly under the radar getting our work done, but each day presents its own unique challenges, and that’s one of the great things about it; there’s routine, but also curveballs thrown every step of the way.

“And I’m intrinsically motivated since this is my hometown,” he said. “When I’m mowing a park, I get there and it’s overgrowing and full of garbage, but when I leave, it’s perfectly manicured. I loved growing up here in Madison Heights, and I love taking care of it now. I do it for everyone, including for my own kids when my wife and I have them someday.”

He said that he feels comfortable with the huge responsibility because of the city’s support.

“I can’t reiterate that point enough,” Ballantine said. “Our staff is incredible — tremendous — and when you have that kind of a support network, from them and City Council and all the others, well, you can’t go wrong.”

A collaborative approach is best, he added.

“I’ve done literally every job at the DPS from the ground up — the water, the sewer, the signs, the buildings. So I have the knowledge and experience, but I also know that I don’t know everything. So I’m able to ask questions, but I also know the reasonable expectations since I’ve done the work,” Ballantine said. “It’s that ground-up sort of training.”

Mark Bliss, the mayor pro tem of Madison Heights, said he has full faith in Ballantine.

“Sean approaches everything with a level of kindness and empathy that is so critical when dealing with our residents’ needs,” Bliss said. “It’s not just his skills and demeanor and 20 years of working for the city of Madison Heights that makes him so special. Sean also has such a heart for this community that comes through so much deeper.”

Bliss recalled how, during the flood of 2014, Ballantine was among the first people down in the waterlogged basement of City Hall, trying to save the collection of artifacts in the Heritage Rooms, a museum chronicling the history of Madison Heights. Many of the items are irreplaceable.

“It’s hard to not care when you grow up here, get married, and live here as an adult — I can speak from experience that it gives you a completely different perspective,” Bliss said. “And that perspective is so valuable at the table, where Sean is both a millennial and young forward-thinking professional ready to take the reins, but also, having grown up here and attended Lamphere and worked at the city for two decades, he has a historical perspective that I think will help take our city to the next level.”

Mayor Roslyn Grafstein agreed.

“Sean is great,” she said. “I remember some years ago, when we had just rebooted the city’s Environmental Citizens Committee, I said to him I’d like to do something for Earth Day, and he got a small crew together to plant a new tree at Wildwood Park. That was wonderful. He grew up here and lives here, so he has the history, and his passion is genuine.

“I really consider DPS the third leg of public safety,” the mayor added. “It doesn’t matter how great our parks or library are if you’re not safe getting there. The roads need to be in good condition for our police and fire to reach you. That’s so important. And DPS is a huge part of that.”    

It’s work that Ballantine continues to cherish.

“Every kid loves to play with trucks in the sandbox,” Ballantine said. “We get to do it for real, and get paid for it. It’s a dream job.”