Grosse Pointe Shores Public Works Department Director Brett Smith stands next to a recently purchased salt truck. Smith, who retired in August after more than 33 years, recalled purchasing a similar vehicle in 1990, around the time he was promoted to DPW director.

Grosse Pointe Shores Public Works Department Director Brett Smith stands next to a recently purchased salt truck. Smith, who retired in August after more than 33 years, recalled purchasing a similar vehicle in 1990, around the time he was promoted to DPW director.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Passion for public service fueled Shores DPW director

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 8, 2020

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — For decades, Grosse Pointe Shores residents calling the Department of Public Works with a complaint have likely been surprised to find DPW Director Brett Smith responding at their door. Some people in Smith’s position might have sent a staffer out to investigate, but Smith said he preferred to go to the resident’s home himself.

“One of the things that I’m proudest of is being with a resident who’s just spitting mad and at the end, they give you a hug,” Smith said. “Face-to-face conversations are always better.”

When he started his municipal career three decades ago, Smith recalled being welcomed by former Shores Village Council President Ed Brady as “a part of the family,” and it was a sentiment Smith took to heart.

“Anything that goes on, he was always there,” Grosse Pointe Shores Planning Commission Chair Mary Matuja said of Smith. “He was very dependable. He was very conscientious. And he certainly will be missed.”

During Smith’s last City Council meeting Aug. 18 at Osius Park, he thanked many of the Shores staffers, elected officials and residents he’s gotten to know and work with over the years. He retired Aug. 19.

“It has been a pleasure to serve as your public works director,” Smith said to a standing ovation.

Smith, 60, of St. Clair Shores, started working for the Grosse Pointe Shores DPW as a mechanic on April 6, 1987. When the DPW director retired 18 months later, Smith was tapped as his replacement.

“In my early life, I went to trade school and was a semi-truck mechanic,” Smith said.

But the long hours began to take a toll, as Smith and his stay-at-home wife, Diana, started a family.

“I was not seeing my children grow,” Smith said. “I took a huge pay cut to come to Grosse Pointe Shores, but I knew I had to do something to see my family more.”

Smith dove into his new career. He oversaw dozens of projects, including separation of the combined sewer system in 1995, lining of all backyard sewers from 2004 to 2005, resurfacing Lake Shore Road in 2000 and 2012, rebuilding the Osius Park marina circa the 2000s, and getting a new traffic signal at Lake Shore and Vernier roads in 2016.

Retired Shores City Manager Mike Kenyon was the person who promoted Smith to head the DPW.

“It was the best decision we ever made,” Kenyon said. “He was a smart guy. He did a great job.”

Kenyon, who now considers Smith “a great friend,” said his former colleague was “very family-oriented, very job-oriented, very dedicated.” Kenyon said Smith also saved the Shores “a lot of money” over the years by hiring DPW workers who could weld and fix large commercial vehicles like garbage trucks. DPW staffers have also been able to retrofit police vehicles with equipment.

“It’s a great loss,” Kenyon said of Smith’s retirement.

Among his professional affiliations, Smith was the president of the Northeast Superintendents Association for 10 years; chair of the Grosse Pointes-Clinton Refusal Disposal Authority Board for eight years; representative for the Grosse Pointes, Harper Woods and Hamtramck on the Wayne County Federal Aid Committee; a member of the American Public Works Association; a member of the American Water Works Association; a member of the former Northeast Wayne County Sewer System; and a member of the current Southeast Macomb Sanitary District.

Those professional memberships have enabled Smith to get funding for numerous major expenditures, including paving projects on Lake Shore and Vernier roads, for which he secured federal funds of nearly $3 million. Smith also got replacement backyard trash scooters and a new garbage truck for the Shores for free — equipment that would have cost the city well over $200,000 — through grants, because the new vehicles were more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. Smith estimates that he’s easily brought in well over $4 million in federal funds and grants over the years, meaning that he’s saved the city more than it has cost the Shores to cover his salary.

Grosse Pointe Farms City Councilman John Gillooly has known Smith for about the last 20 years because Gillooly is also the attorney for the GPCRDA. He called Smith “a true asset to the community,” not just the Shores, and said that Smith has served “with distinction,” bringing good insights and business skills to the table.

“He has saved the residents of all of the Grosse Pointes money though his leadership and attention to detail,” Gillooly said. “He has so well served all of us for so many years. Refuse disposal and collection has been a big issue over the years, and he has made decisions that have benefited every resident of the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods.”

Smith is liked and respected by administrators in other municipalities, as well.

“On many occasions, I personally have sought Brett’s advice and assistance,” Grosse Pointe Farms City Manager Shane Reeside said. “He has always been generous with both. Brett is an optimist, and his optimism is contagious. I have never ended a conversation with Brett where I didn’t feel better than when the conversation started. That is truly a gift.”

Reeside said Smith’s work with the GPCRDA has been invaluable, as well, because he has been able to negotiate “very favorable waste disposal rates” for the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods.

“Brett has been a mentor to the younger public works directors and supervisors in the Grosse Pointes,” Reeside said. “He organized regular meetings where the group would discuss challenges and successes in the field, always trying to identify best practices.”

Smith believes in “service with a smile,” and Matuja — who estimates she’s known him for 20-30 years — says he provided that. She said residents who forgot to put out their trash on the right pickup day could call Smith, and he’d send a truck out as soon as he could to get it for them.

“He’s very honest,” Matuja said. “He will do anything that he can to help people in the community.”

One of the aspects of the job Smith said he enjoyed the most was “just serving the people and being able to be honest with them.” Early on, he said, he learned to steer clear of politics and treat everyone the same.

Smith said that he wasn’t retiring for health reasons. He suffered a heart attack at work March 13, but Shores public safety officers — all of whom are trained as either paramedics or emergency medical technicians — were there to begin immediate treatment, and Smith has since fully recovered.

“I’m 100%,” Smith said. “I feel better than before. I’m not retiring because of health (reasons).”

Like fellow GPS administrator Rhonda Ricketts, the Shores finance officer/treasurer, Smith retired from the city circa 2011 and returned to his old job, taking a pay cut and going on the retiree health care program to save money for the then-cash-strapped city as it was emerging from the Great Recession.

That’s one of the reasons it’s been so painful for Smith and other retirees to see the current City Council making changes to retiree health care benefits they say were contractually promised to them. Those changes include forcing retirees to pay 20% toward their health care, a change that came up suddenly this year and for which retirees weren’t prepared financially.

“Over the past several months, the work environment in Grosse Pointe Shores has become extremely toxic,” Smith said as he addressed the council for the last time Aug. 18. “I would never speak bad about Grosse Pointe Shores. However, I’m not going to lie — that’s not part of my character. … I’m a man of my word. … The council has been very kind with their words. However, the decisions they’re making are quite the opposite. It is for this reason I say it’s time for Brett Smith to retire.”

Grosse Pointe Shores Public Safety Director John Schulte started working with Smith when Schulte came to the Shores almost nine years ago.

“Brett is the finest of public servants,” Schulte said during the Aug. 18 Shores City Council meeting. “He has provided great support to my officers. I wish you and Diana and your family many happy years of retirement.”

Ricketts — who on Aug. 12 announced her own retirement after nearly 33 1/2 years of service — also thanked Smith, with whom she has worked closely on budgetary matters over the last three decades. Ricketts’ last day in the office will be Oct. 21; she officially retires effective Nov. 27.

Interim City Manager Tom Krolczyk thanked Smith, as well, “for all of his service” to the Shores.

“He hired me back in 1998, and we’ve been a good team ever since,” said Krolczyk, who started his career in the Shores as a member of the DPW.

“Brett, thank you very much for your 33 years of service,” Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski said. “I was always impressed with your leadership.”

In December, Smith and his wife will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. The couple are proud grandparents to six youngsters ranging in age from 2 to 12. Their son, Raymond, has four children, and daughter, Jennifer, has two.

“I’ll be seeing them a lot more,” Smith said. “There’s been many times when I couldn’t see them because of work.”

He said he’s missed holidays and birthday parties due to severe storms, water main breaks and the like in the Shores.

Smith is considering a return to work in the future — possibly for another city — but said he wants to take at least a couple of months off first. Besides spending more time with family, he plans to do more volunteering with his church and remain involved in his industry. Smith was a member of the fourth graduating class from the Michigan Public Service Institute — which is an accredited program through Central Michigan University — in 1996. He’s been on the MPSI Planning Committee since 1996 and has been teaching there for years, including a class in passion for public service.

“You can’t take it as a job,” Smith said. “You have to have a passion for it.”