City News

Longtime Salem public works director retires

Peter Fernandez will no longer call the city, no matter how many cracks he sees on the sidewalk during his neighborhood walks in west Salem. 

When Salem city officials retire, he said, they mean it. His predecessor who ran the public works department never called former staff members, and neither did the one before him.

“It’s funny, because I catch myself. ‘Oh, you should have done that. Oh, we could have done that. Oh that needs to be taken care of,’” he said.

Less than a week into his retirement, it hasn’t been easy for Fernandez to unplug. 

“I did think about when that will happen, when it won’t just be part of my mindset,” he said. “This is really all I ever wanted to do. I always wanted to be an urban planner… I don’t know that that’ll ever leave my mind.”

From doodling city plans on school notebooks to a long tenure with the city, there have been few days in his 60 years of life where he hasn’t thought about ways to improve public spaces.

Fernandez retired effective Jan. 6. After 28 years with the city, and 15 as its public works director, he has left an impact on Salem’s landscape and infrastructure.

His position oversaw 450 employees, and city services including bridges, parks, roads and city water and sewer services. He’s taking his exit as the city prepares to spend an additional $300 million on infrastructure projects over the next decade, most of it earmarked for department projects.

Fernandez said public planning is the only thing he ever wanted to do. He grew up in Florida with Cuban parents, and in elementary school went to Disney World for the first time. He was in awe of the design of the park.

“My mother put it in my head that, ‘Hey, that’s what civil engineers do,’” he said. “And she never let me forget it.”

Fernandez initially studied traffic engineering, and got a graduate degree in planning. Early on in his career he worked for Miami-Dade County, then as a consultant.

He met his wife in south Florida, who is from the Salem area. They moved to Salem in the summer of 1995, and he was hired as the city’s transportation service manager.

“I thought I was in heaven. I was paid to work for (a) municipality, where my unit was traffic engineering and transportation planning. I thought I’d hit the pinnacle of my career right there,” he said.

It turned out he could climb higher. A few years later, he took over street operations, which worked with public transportation. In 2002, he became assistant director of the public works department, focusing on city development and budget. 

Soon after he became the department’s director in 2008, the city manager at the time, Linda Norris, added parks to the department’s responsibilities.

“Then I was truly in heaven, because then I really had purview over everything that mattered to me,” he said. “Parks, and where the water systems go and where bikes and (pedestrians) go, and bridges, that kind of stuff. So it was just fantastic.”

The 2008 financial crisis hit early in Fernandez’s tenure, and he said the city’s utilities were on the verge of bankruptcy. He said he succeeded, alongside Norris, in bringing them to a financially healthy place over the next 15 years.

It’s part of the reason, he said, that the department will be getting a new $39 million building later this year. The building will replace what he described as a cold and dank vintage space with a leaky roof.

As director, he said he never did anything alone and his main role was to get the team thinking about projects. 

One project that he described as “all me,” though, was the city’s 56-acre purchase in 2008 and 2009 of the Battle Creek Golf Course to be converted into a large park.

The park, which features creeks, floodplains and wetlands, is planned to include disc golf, play stations, an outdoor classroom and other amenities. The city’s five-year capital improvement plan has planned $1.4 million for the park’s design and construction between 2023 and 2027.

The land purchase wasn’t unanimously popular, he said, but he pushed for it. 

“When you look at it, it really has the potential ultimately to become the Bush Park of the south,” he said. “There’s no other park of that size in all of south Salem, so we were able to grab that and I’m super proud of that.”

He estimated that over the 27 years he worked there, the engineering department built nearly a billion dollars worth of projects. He said he’s proud that the department has delivered.

“That’s a lot to deliver with really very few issues,” which included some projects being late or over budget. “Nothing’s fallen down, nothing has ‘Oh my god we made a big mistake,’ I mean, everything works.”

His biggest regret, he said, is that Salem doesn’t have another bridge option over the Willamette. Since the 1960s, he said, people have been hoping to expand what is currently one way to west Salem, and one way back.

“The latest attempt was a few years ago, and millions were spent. I think almost $10 million was spent, and the community didn’t like it,” he said. 

The project was a joint effort through the Oregon Department of Transportation and the city. Salem City Council killed the project with a 6-3 vote in 2019.

“It is a shame because we need another way to cross the river. I mean, a third of the community lives in west Salem,” he said. “It’s a failure of the community, a failure of vision that we couldn’t address that issue.”

The bridge project missed its chance to be included in the $300 million infrastructure bond, one of the biggest projects his successor will take on.

The majority of the bond will go to public works projects including $157 million for streets and sidewalks, $39.5 million to city government infrastructure and $28.4 million to parks upgrades.

Other future projects include system resiliency issues and new pump stations in west Salem.

“It’s just constant, the amount of work that is facing you, plus whatever shows up day to day,” he said. “But I think it’s in good shape, I think the department is in really good shape.”

There’s no perfect time to retire, he said, but feels that it was a good time to bow out and his former staff will continue to improve the city.

He’ll be getting his steps in walking the streets that he helped pave. His wife plans to retire from ODOT in the next few years, and they’ll visit their children who live in Seattle and Washington D.C.

For the past decade, he has also taught college courses at Portland State University, and has enjoyed seeing former students go on to public works positions.

Fernandez said he’s learning to relax. He has no plans to get involved with neighborhoods, boards or city council but that he’d be interested in volunteer work in the future.

“This is a great place to live, and the city is a great organization and really was a great employer,” he said.

He recalled first getting here and seeing how kind a city staff were to residents, a “different planet” from the south Florida department he came from. While he thinks the level of service has stayed the same, the city itself has only improved over the years.

“My wife and I intend to stay here, so I hope that it will continue to get even better,” he said.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.