TONY COLE: A CITY'S BEST FRIEND AT CALTRANS
District Liaison to Local Agencies lends an ear and expertise to stop problems before they start.
One way that District 7 provides superior customer service is through the District Liaison to Local Agencies, Anthony (Tony) Cole.
Cole considers himself an ombudsman to the agencies; at any given time, he might be called upon to smooth ruffled feathers, provide guidance in working with the Department, or simply absorb their frustration.
His direct supervisor is Local Assistance Office Chief Kirk Cessna and above him is Planning Deputy James McCarthy. “But for much of what I do I actually report directly to (District Director) Doug Failing,” Cole said.
Cole typically gets calls from public works directors, city managers or their staff on issues that can range from the mundane, like trash, graffiti, and signs, to “grey areas” that need further investigation or analysis in order to come up with an acceptable alternative. “And sometimes we have to say no,” he said, “for example, when it comes to matters of safety and liability.” Cole’s involvement helps to keep many issues from escalating to the district director.
A large part of his job involves fieldwork and meetings. Over the course of a month he generally attends about six sub-regional Council of Government (COG) meetings as well as meetings of their various subcommittees. “The advantage of going to those meetings is that because I am essentially a one man band and I’m covering the 110-plus cities is that the public works directors and city engineers know that I’m going to be there so if they need some face time, that’s a great opportunity to talk to me directly,” Cole said. “That tends to keep me in touch with a lot of the important issues of our local partners.”
“This position is unique to all of Caltrans and is a compliment to our directors that they thought enough of the benefits to dedicate an employee full-time to this task,” Cole said.
Caltrans and Cole go way back—to 1970, where he started as a Junior Right of Way Agent with the Division of Highways. Later, he transferred into the earliest version of Environmental Planning, where he worked for eight years, until graduate school and the private sector called him away. “But I kind of missed what I was doing here,” Cole said, “so I returned.”
While working as an Associate Transportation Planner, Cole was asked to manage the Government Affairs office, then under the Executive Division. “I did that for a couple of years and really quite enjoyed it, but it was woefully understaffed and it was very difficult to keep on top of demands of elected officials,” he said. But Cole was able to do so much there that when the then-District Director went to visit an elected official he was asked, “Do you work for Tony Cole?”
His visibility and effectiveness made him an obvious choice for the liaison position when it was developed. “I had gotten to know a lot of people throughout the district and I’m a chatty, easygoing kind of guy,” he said. “In my experience, personal interaction goes a long way towards getting people to be more accommodating to each other.”
It’s important to Cole that the Department be thought well of and that we be as cooperative as possible with the public and the agencies we deal with. “I love Caltrans. I tell people that I bleed Caltrans orange,” he said. “And I’ve found that it’s generally low level things that keep our local partners happy.”