Two men who helped shape the exterior of the City of Missoula and Missoula County are taking over the interior workings.
Shane Stack is the new county public works director, while Jeremy Keene is his counterpart at the city level. Like the Wizard of Oz, they operate behind the scenes. Unlike the wizard, whose work was an illusion, they oversee road plowing and maintenance, water and sewer services, and other activities that keep the city and county running smoothly for the public's benefit.
Together, they bring almost 50 years of engineering experience to their respective positions. Stack spent the bulk of his 23-year career at the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), and also participated in local activities including the Missoula County Airport Authority Board and the Missoula Downtown Association.
“I really value our community and the public,” Stack said. “We work for the public, and I won’t lose sight of that. I loved working at MDT, with a phenomenal team that did amazing things. But this job is about more than just roads — sewer, water, building permits, surveyors.
“Two things that are on my radar now are flooding and budgeting. I wish I had started in January because I’m more experienced at dealing with snow removal,” he added with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Keene spent 24 years with WGM Group, where he sat on the board of directors and supervised multidisciplinary teams of 20 or more. He was project manager for the $25 million fairgrounds restoration and worked on the Southgate Mall upgrades, and both the North Reserve/Scott Street master plan and the Brooks/South/Russell intersection, among other projects around the state.
“Some were difficult, often controversial issues that we worked through, which is common to almost all public works projects,” Keene said. “What I really liked throughout my career in private consulting was the process of putting those projects together and building public consensus.
“We all use utilities and depend on all the streets and transport system. It’s rare that you find a public works project that doesn’t impact the public.”
The two are acquainted with each other, and said they look forward to putting their skills to work in areas where they overlap.
“While I was at MDT we built good relationships with the city and staff, and I will take advantage of that and continue to build relationships,” Stack said.
Keene added that while the city and county will always have their differences, the relationship he and Stack have should help with some of those discussions.
“Shane and I have worked together as long as I have been in Montana,” Keene added. “It’s fantastic to have him at the county; to be able to start with a great working relationship makes it easier. He is a sharp, knowledgeable person who knows the city and MDT, and that’s great.”
Keene oversees the larger budget — $38 million — of the two public works departments, which includes the city’s water, wastewater and stormwater utilities. His salary is $137,500, which is more than the advertised pay range of $107,222 to $129,720 for the position.
Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer and Keene’s boss, said he offered the higher amount to Keene because of his experience; to be competitive with the private sector; and to put him higher on the pay rate than some of the Missoula Water employees, who were given large salaries when the utility was privately owned.
“It’s compatible with his peers in other cities of similar sizes,” Bickell said. “One of the things he brings to us is the private sector perspective on how we might approach things. We do a lot of public/private partnerships related to infrastructure development, and his perspective is valuable.”
Bickell added that for the past five years, the city focused on the water, stormwater and wastewater utilities, and Keene will pay more attention to the transportation issues, based on his background.
“We needed to turn the focus to transportation planning, maintenance and construction,” Bickell said. “We had worked with Jeremy, and knew he has an innovative mind.”
Keene directly supervises eight people in a department with about 125 employees. He wants to connect the dots between land use and transportation, which was a large part of his job while at WGM. He knows that work on streets and sidewalks can be controversial, and wants to get people to find solutions collaboratively.
“Usually, projects start with a lot of emotion and that’s where the conflicts come. Once people agree they want to work on solutions, which often involves compromises, at the end of the day even if they’re not happy, they understand why we did what we did,” Keene said. “We need to be transparent when working with public funding.”
He noted that the city is good at dealing with immediate public works needs, but one of his goals is to look anywhere from five to 20 years down the road with an eye on better street planning for future capital improvement projects. He also wants to position Missoula for impending growth.
“What will Missoula look like when we have twice as many people here?” Keene said. “I think we may not want to grow, but growth will happen whether we like it or not, so we need to be intentional in our decisions and how we accommodate growth.”
Keene is married to Heather Harp, a Missoula city councilor, but Bickell said that had nothing to do with his hire. He noted that boundaries are built into the city’s charter that will keep the couple from having a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict. For example, Harp is one of 12 council members, so she can’t push for projects that benefit his department. The council has no oversight of city employees, and while Keene will make budget presentations to the council, the budget itself is a product of the mayor’s office.
“The fact of the matter is having Jeremy be a principle formerly with WGM could have been more of a conflict because the city does a lot of work with his former engineering firm,” Bickell said.
Keene added that both he and his wife have a history of public involvement, and they plan to be open about their relationship if or when any potential conflicts exist.
“I don’t think there are that many situations where there would be a true conflict of interest, like a financial gain,” Keene said.
Stack manages the county’s $17.9 million public works budget, which includes roads, bridges and levee construction, maintenance and engineering; six sewer and water districts; rural special improvement districts; and special projects. He directly oversees five employees, in a department of about 60 people. Stack also is responsible for the overall direction of the road maintenance crews, mechanics, administrative and financial staff, and building code staff.
His salary is $120,000, which is the top end of the advertised range of $105,000 to $120,000.
Vickie Zeier, the county’s chief administrative officer, oversees Stack and said they were impressed with his public works experience while at MDT.
“That was one of the items that stood out. I think the other item is his ability to collaborate and work with other government agencies,” Zeier said. “The commissioners had experience with him at MDT and liked how he got things done at the local and state level.”
One of the projects Stack worked on while at MDT included the initial environmental documents involving the controversial South Avenue Bridge — documents now being questioned by Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. Stack said he’s spoken briefly with Strohmaier about his concerns, but wants to have a lengthier conversation with all three of the commissioners to get a better sense of how they want to proceed.
“For me, that’s important. I don’t know how much has been done because I haven’t been involved in it for years,” Stack said. “I don’t know how much public involvement was done, but it’s amazing what you can do with the right public involvement. You might not get 100 percent acceptance, but you want to get informed consent.”
Like Keene, Stack believes his background in transportation projects will benefit the county. With 1,500 miles of public roadway in Missoula County, Stack and his crews are responsible for maintaining 474 miles. That includes 232 miles of paved surfaces and 242 miles of gravel roads.
“Transportation always seems to impact more people; I think it’s because of the daily use,” Stack said. “The public rarely sees the sewer lines or water lines — they just turn on the tap and water comes out. So until there is some sort of issue, you don’t really care. But transportation has daily effects on the community.”
His goals include building relationships, not just with the public but also with his employees.
“I really try to be supportive of staff and inclusive. Their feedback and insight is important to me,” Stack said. “If they’re included in how we move forward with decisions, they will support them.”
Stack wants to run his list of long-term goals past the county commissioners before making it public to ensure they have the same vision. But Strohmaier already is in Stack’s corner.
“His strong management skills, combined with his ability to work collaboratively and creatively with state and federal officials, the city of Missoula and the public, is exactly the right chemistry to help distinguish Missoula County as a public works leader across the state,” Strohmaier said in a statement.