Defining an era – Russ Harvey’s Public Works Department

  • Thu Apr 16th, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

By Colin Huntemer

San Juan County Engineer

On April 23, Russ Harvey will retire from the San Juan County Public Works Department after 39 years of public service. Until then, you can reach him at After that you can reach him as most of you already do, as a neighbor on Orcas Island.

And so, we attempt to eulogize Russ out of public service and return him back to his family and his community. In a moment where we would normally gather together to acknowledge that ‘there are no words’ and offer a hug, we have to step back because, alas, there will be no hugs. There will be no handshakes, no connecting smiles, and no applause. In a world gripped by a global viral pandemic, our close-knit public works family is kept apart from each other and I am left with only words on paper.

I began this task by quantifying Russ’ time in public service but after doing the math and staring at the numbers (and yes, they are impressive) it felt completely out of touch and underwhelming. Russ never quantified me, Russ never scored me, Russ never reduced any of us to an individual performance metric. I believe, perhaps, a better way to eulogize Russ’ time with Public Works is to reflect on his presence and its reverberating effect on shaping the department’s culture over these past 39 years.

Russ was a presence of temperament, judgment, and perspective to us all. He always factored the human element into every decision, and as a generational islander, he was able to include the community element with keen tact. His appreciation for history, especially here in the islands, combined with his excellent memory, afforded him an invaluable perspective into the relationship between our work and our community. He never let the task at hand or the urgency of the moment obstruct his vision of the big picture, and he was always there to help the rest of us consider the unintended consequences of our actions.

Russ’ storied career is a contribution to the department in itself. On Feb. 1, 1981, Russ was brought on run a cable dozer at the county’s landfill on Orcas island, a job for which he was well prepared because of his many years running similar equipment logging the hills of Orcas island with his father. His ascension from a landfill operator fighting off

hordes of rats crawling over his cable dozer to sitting with the County Council as head of the largest county department may seem improbable but to those who knew him best, it was inevitable.

Russ was ever-present throughout the department’s organizational changes, operational changes, and political changes. Despite his significant time in ‘road maintenance’ and the monotonous connotations that come with that work, he never settled. His composure in the face of change assured him a seat at the table with decision-makers, and Russ’ opinion quickly became sought after by those who were looking to make an informed decision (or in other words, the ‘correct’ decisions). Ultimately, we are all fortunate that many others had the wisdom and foresight to support Russ and give him an opportunity to lead us.

In the director’s chair, Russ championed the same principal value he advocated for while he labored with the road crews. Russ correctly understood that a culture built on trust is mutually beneficial on all accounts. From the beginning to the end of each day he trusted us. Trusted that we would perform our work diligently. Trusted that we would behave ethically. Trusted that we knew what we were doing, that we would ask for help when we needed it, and that ultimately our successes and our failures are our own to make.

In the midst of a global viral pandemic, it can be unsettling to have Russ leave us, but I am personally comforted by Russ’ operational philosophy about the task at hand, which I paraphrase: “it is not an emergency, it’s just the next right thing to do.”

In retrospect, it is not the quantity of Russ’ time with us, it is most certainly the quality of time here that will stay with us long after he has left. I am grateful to know Russ and am thankful for his friendship that I know will continue for many, many years to come. He’s a classic. An all-around good-guy in a world where there never seems to be enough of them.

Thank you, be well, and Godspeed!