March 23, 2005 - Last week in Mesa the street department was busy tearing up the pavement and making cracks, scratches and potholes in the once smooth asphalt.

Sounds like the opposite of what one would expect from a street crew, but Mesa was getting ready to hold the annual Street Maintenance Rendezvous, an event that pits crews against one another to see which crews and workers are the best in the state.

The rendezvous took place at the expansive Mesa Service Center. Crews from Phoenix, Chandler, Gilbert, Glendale and other towns throughout Arizona converged at 8 a.m. to start the competition, which consisted of a handful of events that tested the know-how of workers on operating equipment and completing tasks that most street crews are asked to do on a regular basis.

While Oro Valley is the smallest town to take part in the competition, the group received several honors this year, including a first-place tie with Glendale for the Best of the Best title for overall performance. This was the first time the group was entered in all the individual competitions. Last year, the town made a name for itself after placing in three events.

"We were kind of the team to beat last year," said Oro Valley Engineer Bill Jansen, the head of the public works department. "Most people never even heard of Oro Valley, and we kind of stomped them."

Being the little guys, Oro Valley is somewhat disadvantaged when is comes to competition. Many of the machines they use in Mesa are state-of-the-art, and are much more advanced than what is used back home.

"We're the MacGyvers," said Lory Warren, the street superintendent who manages the crew. She said people are impressed that Oro Valley can compete with "the big dogs," especially when they are often learning, on their feet, to use the equipment or to do certain jobs.

The competition is organized by the state chapter of the nationwide Street Superintendents Organization. Warren said the group is a priceless resource for her because she is able to learn how other departments are operating and where they have succeeded and failed.

"We wear many hats," said Warren of her crew. Because it is small, there is not one group to patch pot holes while another sweeps streets. The men on the Oro Valley crew must diversify, and the competition lets them see how others get the job done.

Carlos Martinez, who has worked with the town for three years, competed this year for the illustrious title of master equipment operator. The energetic Martinez said he knows every street in the town, and claimed he even knows every resident living there. He may not know them by name, but he knows their houses or the cars they drive.

"We have nicknames for everyone," he said.

To be the master operator, Martinez must compete in a series of events covering activities he is used to doing in Oro Valley.

Anyone who has had trouble parallel parking the four wheels on their car would not want to attempt maneuvering the 10-wheel dump truck through a winding obstacle course of orange cones. Martinez, as part of the master operator competition, must complete this course, trying to avoid crushing the cones as he guides the truck through, backing up to a series of garbage cans. He bounces up and down on the sidelines, stretching his arms, rolling his head from side to side and watching in anticipation of his turn at the wheel. When his name is called, he jumps into the truck's cab and quickly tears onto the course.

Co-workers Raymond Rodriguez and Robert Montaña crouch on the sideline, watching his tires as Martinez begins his first back-up. They wince as a huge tire runs over a cone.

"His problem is, he's going too fast," Montaña said. Montaña is a supervisor with the department and has worked with Martinez for three years.

He said he counts on both Martinez and Rodriguez to motivate the other workers and to help them learn their jobs.

"These two are my best workers," he says, proudly patting the shoulders of the two men, his round face overcome with and an ear-to-ear smile. "I rely on them a lot."

Montaña said the sense of family is strong among the people on Oro Valley's road crew. And he said that sense is strengthened by this annual event where, for one day, they can leave their jobs to come and root for one another as they try to bring home bragging rights.

Ask anyone who works in the street department what they like best about their job, and they will tell you it is working with a family.

And the rendezvous provides a team-building opportunity that both Jansen and Warren said helps the group function better after the festivities are over.

"You need it," Jansen said about teamwork in his line of work. "You can't have people all going their own way in a job like this. This provides an opportunity to get to know each other."

The team effort was tested when the group competed for the first time in a crack-sealing event. Deep gouges were carved in the parking lot in Mesa and the teams were challenged to see who could fill in the cracks neatly and the quickest.

The truck used is an upgrade of what the Oro Valley team uses at home, and the four-person team was using it for the very first time. While one person drove the truck slowly along the lines and loops scratched in the asphalt, another man vacuumed loose dirt and gravel out of the cracks. Then, while one man slowly, carefully poured the shiny liquid asphalt out of a long hose connected to the truck, the other squeegeed it into the cracks, watching to make sure it didn't pool on the road or dribble outside the line.

All of this happens very quickly, with the men trailing the truck in what looks like a choreographed dance from afar. Get a little closer and the nervous coaching of the teammates can be heard over the hum of the truck as they talk each other through the new experience. While the yard seems noisy with the sounds of the machinery echoing off the pavement, after a while the noise becomes a familiar hum in the background.

Julio Lopez, the new guy, has been asked to work the squeegee. Martinez, buzzing with adrenaline, talks him through it.

"I was talking English, Spanish, everything," he says after the event is over. He is pacing back and forth, watching the judge, who is working down the checklist on his clipboard. The judges for each event check to see if the competitors know how to properly turn on and check all the equipment, take the right safety measures, perform the tasks neatly and efficiently, and shut down everything correctly when they are finished.

At the end of the day, the whole team gathers to watch Martinez finish his final event for the master operator title. He has watched a series of men before him on the backhoe event and is ready to have his turn at it.

With all the trucks and other machines running for hours, the whole yard smells like it does when you stand at a gas pump. After a while, the fumes dry out your throat and eyes and make your head spin just a little bit.

The Oro Valley team sits on the backs of pickup trucks and stands with hands thrust deep into jean pockets, quietly watching. The backhoe event is a series of maneuvers to pick up various objects, from plastic pipes to rebar, and move them to another location.

The 7-ton machine, with 40-inch back tires, looks awkward and powerful, but Jansen said a skilled operator can perform intricate work with it "like poetry in motion."

"Most people don't appreciate the skills it takes to operate these machines," he says in a hushed voice as Martinez gets ready to begin his conquest.

Machines like the backhoe are used frequently in Oro Valley, particularly when it's time to clean up after a storm. While Oro Valley sleeps, it is not unusual for the road crew to be clearing fallen trees, moving sand bars and picking up debris to clear the roads for the morning commute.

"We don't have a glamorous job," Warren said. "But by the time you get up to go to work in the morning, the streets are clear and you don't even know we were there. We're like a brain surgeon. You don't think about us until you need us."

While good on the backhoe, Martinez lets his nervous energy get the best of him, knocking over some poles and dropping some objects.

Montaña shakes his head from the sidelines.

"He just went too fast," he says for the second time that day. There is a moment of silence as Martinez gets out of the truck, but then the crew erupts into applause and smiles for the teammate.

"It was the pressure, the stress," he says with a sense of humor.

Warren said the event is not about the competition, although that is certainly a motivator. "For the rest of the year, they will be talking about this. They want to perfect what they are doing. It can get pretty boring running a grader or a sweeper all day. This gives them motivation," she said.

Lopez started his job as a street crew worker in Oro Valley on March 14. It was his birthday, and he said it was a wonderful gift to be able to start a new and promising job with the town.

Lopez is from Oracle and has been working in the area, delivering spas to homes and businesses. When he learned of an opening in Oro Valley, he decided to apply because he said he heard the employees are treated well and there are opportunities for people looking to start careers, not just get jobs.

"I knew a town job could provide an opportunity for advancement and security," he said.

There was a period of instability in the department, according to Jansen, when some "instigators" within the department, plus the allure of more money to be made in other cities and towns, was causing some turnover. That, in turn, caused more disruption as new employees came in and needed to be trained and oriented.

But that has since settled down, Jansen said, and most of the turnover happening now is a result of promotions within the town. Oro Valley offers its employees opportunities to train and become certified in many different areas of public works. It also offers tuition reimbursement and promotions that give people the chance to go where they want to go within the organization. Jansen said the town now has an engineering technician who began as an entry-level laborer and worked his way up. He said another employee left the town for more money elsewhere, but almost immediately wanted to come back because the employees are treated as important members of a team in the town.

Lopez said he was immediately welcomed into the tight-knit group of about 15 road workers in the street department for the town.

"They are like a family," he said, remembering the parties he has already been invited to. "They eat so much, I'm going to end up with a big gut."

Lopez said he especially was happy to be invited to join the crew in Mesa for the rendezvous because he knew it would be a great time to see all the different aspects of the job in action. Looking over a line of different equipment parked at the center, Lopez said he is eager to learn how to operate all of it.

"I like it," he said of his new job. "At times you get to kick back and have a little fun, but other times it can be a real back breaker. I used to see them out on the side of the road and I thought, oh they're just pulling weeds. But, no. It's interesting to learn about all the things they do."

And with all the construction and roads being built in Oro Valley, Jansen said they should be plenty busy for a long time to come. Jansen, who has been with the town for six years, will retire at the end of April.

When he came, there were only a handful of traffic signals in town, but he has seen Oro Valley through a number of major construction projects since and said he is leaving with the major infrastructure for growth in place, or well on its way to being there.

He said that while he knows it's time to move on, enjoy life and do some traveling with his wife, he will miss the people in the town.

"There is no other way to describe it than that it's a family," he said. "It will be like leaving behind members of my family."

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