When Los Angeles County Director of Public Works Gail Farber learned that a shortage of work opportunities was a major reason why youth coming out of county probation camps returned to crime, she decided to make her department part of the solution.

Farber reached out to probation and other programs to see whether her department’s internship program could offer positions that would change the trajectory of these high-risk youth.

Now, a year later, a young man and woman are in the pilot phase, two others are being readied for a trial in the coming year, and leaders are optimistic that the program can be used as a model throughout LA County government to stem the tide of recidivism.

“This is the most exciting thing that I’ve seen in my 30 years of working in nonprofits,” says Belinda Walker, an area activist helping at-risk youth. “Gail was able to see where transformational change can be made and applied the leadership skills to bring it about.”

While involving a public works department in efforts to lower crime rates may raise eyebrows, the initiative is just part of the transformational vision that Farber has laid out for one of the nation’s largest public works departments. In her six years at the helm, she has broken glass ceilings, broken down department silos and broken through walls of communications.

For her leadership and vision, American City & County magazine has named Farber its Public Works Leader of the Year for 2014.

“Gail is someone who has exceptional integrity, who will not just maintain the status quo, but move the county forward,” says County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka. “She has a strong commitment to public service, with a vision for the future.”

“She’s initiated and implemented a strategy for her department,” says Daryl Osby, fire chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who has worked closely with Farber on building a strong relationship between the respective staffs. “She’s created a model for other departments to follow.”

As the top executive of the public works department, Farber leads 3,800 employees, manages a $2.1 billion annual budget and another $3 billion capital program budget, and provides services to more than 10 million residents spread over more than 4,000 square miles. In her job, she has responsibility for county roads, the building department, flood control, waterworks, and sewers and aviation, among other operations.

The lightweight that packs a punch

When Fujioka was looking for a new head of his public works division in 2008, he says he wanted a person who would make “significant changes,” but he worried how well a small-framed woman (Farber stands 5 feet, 4 inches) would be able to lead a male-dominated department.

“She told me how she once, as an inspector, confronted a contractor who was over 6 feet tall and was talking down to her,” he recounted. “She pulled over a boulder, stood on top of it, and told him, ‘Now, this is what you’re going to do.’ I knew she could handle the job.” (Farber tells the same story, but with a more colorful quote.)

As the new director, Farber adopted a strategic plan that reorganized 30 different areas into six core services, reflecting operations in service areas that cut across traditional department silos. In addition to the more conventional areas of transportation, public buildings, water resources, development services and waste management, she added emergency management to reflect her view of public works as a “third leg” (along with law enforcement and fire services) as a first responder agency.

“She’s brought on a new and fresh perspective,” says Mark Pestrella, her chief deputy. “She’s fearless about innovation. It’s part of her daily work.”

Among Farber’s innovations was adding “transparency” to the department’s core values, he says. The department established Twitter accounts for all six core service areas to enable team members to inform the public about services daily and a YouTube page to feature dozens of internally produced short videos on its programs and operations.

The department’s technology staff also developed a mobile application that enables constituents to report potholes, graffiti, illegal dumping and property violations with their mobile phones. It has been so successful that other county departments, including parks and recreation and public health, are adopting the technology. “It’s cutting edge for a bread and butter service,” Fujioka says. “It makes people have faith in government.”

Putting out fires

Farber’s department is highly praised for its response to the 2009 Station Fire north of the city of Los Angeles.  The fire was the largest in the county’s history, consuming over 160,000 acres and taking the lives of two firefighters. Public Works was especially lauded for its effort to preserve property after the fire devastated the undergrowth that controls mudslides during the winter rains.

Osby says Public Works’ effective management of storm drains, barriers and other engineering initiatives prevented the loss of any homes from mudslides by making sure that water flowed in the proper direction, debris was controlled and residents were kept informed. “They were instrumental in creating a successful outcome,” he says. “They had a major role in logistical support during the incident.”

After the fire, the department was instrumental in the development of the Coordinated Agency Recovery Effort (CARE), which is a comprehensive, multi-agency community and media outreach program to provide emergency communications regarding potential mud and debris flows. The CARE program continues to be a major component of the department’s disaster and emergency response communications effort.

“There’s not a week that goes by that the fire department doesn’t have some interaction with her department,” Osby says. “She’s been instrumental in improving relationships between the Department of Public Works and the fire department. They provide exceptional service to other departments and the 10 million residents of the city and county of Los Angeles.”