Every Friday morning Clarkston City Manager Keith Barker gets to work at 8:15 a.m., has a quick cup of coffee then gets into a blue Ford pickup truck with a City of Clarkston Public Works logo on the side.
Barker, who has been the city manager for a little more than two months, said he gets in the truck each week to see what needs to be fixed in the community instead of just spending his time behind a desk.
“One of the things about working in a place this small is that you can get out and ride around and see things,” Barker said. “If I see people out, I like to just stop and talk to them. If you just listen to the people who go to the meetings you might a skewed perspective.”
Barker’s first stop on his July 29 ride was the Clarkston Women’s Club, which was built in 1913 and is one of the oldest women’s club buildings in the state. There he met former councilwoman Karen Feltz standing on a gravel road that led behind the club to the entrance of the building.
Feltz had contacted Barker because she was upset with the condition of the club. When she was on the city council they had renovated the club, spent money on landscaping and began renting it out to the public for events. Feltz said that over the past few years the club had been neglected.
“This was a restoration project and the reason why we had the roses is we were trying to recreate the way it would have been in Victorian times,” Feltz said, pointing to a brittle, flowerless rosebush.
Barker assured Feltz that he would make the upkeep of the club a priority but also asked her if she would be willing to volunteer. Throughout the ride that became a common theme for Barker.
“Because of our diversity and our refugee and immigrant population, there are a lot of people who have their hands in Clarkston, a lot of service agencies and non-profit organizations,” Barker said.
As he pulled up in front of Clarkston Lake, Barker put the truck in park and explained that those who worked on some of the restoration projects in the city are sometimes hesitant to let the community use them.
“We have the tendency to work on something and get it nice and then we’ll say, ‘We don’t want anybody coming to use it because folks will tear it up,’” Barker said.
The lake had recently been dredged, stocked and a new dock was added, which was blocked off by a padlocked fence.
“You see the lock there? I want to work on getting it off. It was put there because we didn’t want anyone fishing until the fish grew. Well, put a no fishing sign on there instead,” Barker said.
Across from the lake is Milam Park, where a construction crew was laying the groundwork for a new pool slated to open in September. There was also a new tennis facility that was also padlocked, and Barker said he wanted everyone to have easy access. Now, if one wants to play tennis one has to go to city hall, reserve the court and then be given the key to unlock the courts.
Barker said that when he was hired he quickly realized there was a lot that needed to be done. Now, he said he was in the process of bringing in experts to assess where the city’s operations are lacking. These are things that are behind the scenes but essential to make a city function smoothly.
“No one will see the fact that we have revamped our human resources procedures; no one will see the fact that we now have an employee handbook where before we didn’t,” Barker said.
As Barker was driving through a neighborhood he stopped, rolled the window down and began chatting to a woman with a toy poodle. It was Karen Feltz’s 85-year-old mother Naomi.
Naomi complained that many of the yards on her street were overgrown with grass and weeds, and some had yard debris on the curb.
“When it’s so bad that somebody has to come and tell you that your yard needs mowing…if you don’t know it needs mowing then there’s something wrong with you,” she said.
Until recently, Barker said there was a problem with residents disposing of yard waste in front of their homes, which is a code violation. So, he made it a point to contact residents to make them more aware of the ordinances. He also put it up for discussion at a recent council meeting and said that since then he has seen a dramatic decrease of curbside waste.
“Public works was virtually non-existent when I was hired. Hopefully, when [residents] see that the catch basins are clean and their houses aren’t flooded, they see that we’ve started a program where we’ve gotten better sidewalks. That’s something tangible,” Barker said.
Barker said that although the city has a ways to go, these rides helped him identify a lot of things that he might not have seen otherwise.
“I’ve got to make sure to shore up the bottom of the house and make sure that the basement’s not flooding before I start painting the exterior,” he said.