Retiring West Allis official tried to avoid political potholes
Public works head enjoyed the sounds of silence
West Allis — Under Mike Pertmer's leadership, the city's Department of Public Works flew under the radar as much as possible.
That was by design, the retiring longtime department leader noted.
From the time residents got up in the morning to the time they went to bed at night, everything from the water in their kitchen sink to the streetlights in front of their house should work, Pertmer said.
That's not to say everything was always perfect or that no one ever complained.
It's not always smooth sailing for anyone who works in public works, and in particular its leader - the department is often the target of residents' criticism, often involving snow plowing or potholes.
So the way Pertmer figures it, if nobody notices the West Allis public works department, Pertmer and his crew consider it a job well done.
"Public works is kind of the silent force," Pertmer said. "We're challenged to make it work and be as least disruptive as possible."
Not exactly born to the job
City officials lauded the longtime public works director, who retired Oct. 2 after 36 years in the department - 17 years as its director preceded by eight years as assistant director.
Pertmer, born and raised in West Allis, told Mayor Dan Devine and the Common Council in his resignation letter that, growing up, he never even considered a career in the public works field.
He decided to step down now mostly in light of the declining economy, noting the uncertain future of pensions and investments.
He credited his long run to the support of his City Hall colleagues and elected officials.
Though officials don't always agree with each other, the city has avoided the kind of political infighting seen in other municipalities, Pertmer said, which has made the working environment all the more enjoyable.
Not surprisingly, it's usually only when something goes wrong that the department is noticed, Pertmer said. But while there are some residents he "never wants to deal with again," there are far more good people in West Allis than otherwise, Pertmer said.
And there's even more good people working under him.
"While the word hero is rarely associated with employees in the field of public works, I truly believe that these employees are heroes," Pertmer wrote in his retirement letter to the mayor and council.
"They are the people who assure that a myriad of life's daily activities, most often taken for granted, take place without hindrance."
As for the future of Pertmer's old job, the West Allis Common Council is studying a possible restructuring among the engineering and public works departments.
Devine named Tom Harmatys the interim public works director. Harmatys is the superintendent of the building and sign division of the public works department.
Staying out of the light
Pertmer never sought to put his department in the limelight, and the low-key approach served him well in his time leading public works, the city's mayor said.
"He kept a low profile and got the job done without a lot of pomp and circumstance," said Devine, who declared Oct. 1 "Mike Pertmer Day" in the city. "He always brings a thoughtful approach to problems and has been very responsive and keeping the department running well when resources have been declining."
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