Just as 2010 was wrapping up — bringing with it some of the wettest months on record — the snow came.
And then it kept coming.
By the end of January 2011, the region had received 34.2 inches of snowfall, good for the most on record for the month of January, according to National Weather Service officials. The figure shattered the old record taken at Upton of 21.5 inches. And all that snow came after a monster blizzard in late December. And more snow followed as the long winter progressed.
Summer 2011 was no better. In late August, Riverhead saw one of the worst storms to hit the area since Hurricane Gloria: Tropical Storm Irene.
While most residents and town workers were hunkering down, one elected leader — the always-hands-on highway superintendent, George “Gio” Woodson — took to the roads. His leadership helped keep Riverhead Town roads safe and clear during some of the most challenging weather events in recent history. And when he wasn’t clearing snow or trees from roads in the dead of night, he was shopping for equipment at auction and beefing up his fleet of trucks — without busting budgets — to ensure that he and his crews would always be prepared.
For his tireless work and dedication, as well as his creative approach to running a department without neglecting problems due to budget cuts, Mr. Woodson is our News-Review Public Servant of the Year for 2011.
A highway department employee for more than two decades, Mr. Woodson, a Democrat, was first elected in November 2007 and sworn into office in 2008. He was re-elected in a landslide against a formidable opponent in 2009 and in 2010 embarked on a voter-approved four-year term.
“What makes the highway department here stand out most is that it’s historically, from a town perspective, short-staffed,” said Riverhead Councilman James Wooten, the Town Board liaison to the department. “They’re down to 32 employees when at one time they were up to 45. When Gio first took office he had to restructure his entire department to handle the demands of the community, but with less workers.”
Aside from keeping the town’s roads navigable during and after some of the worsts storms on record, Mr. Wooten pointed to Mr. Woodson’s environmentally conscious push toward requiring all residents to use brown paper bags to gather leaves — and his expedience in collecting those leaves.
“This new bagged leaf pickup went far beyond our expectations this year,” he said. “It took three weeks to get all the leaves picked up; normally it takes six weeks.”
But there’s more to the highway superintendent job “than just making sure the drains are cleared and there’s a sharp blade on the snow plow,” Mr. Wooten said, explaining that Mr. Woodson has worked closely and effectively with town engineers to help the town comply with federal environmental regulations.
“Now with EPA,” he said, “they came out a few years ago with stormwater runoff regulation and how the town has to be responsible for collecting its water and filtering it and all that to make sure it doesn’t go into our waterways. Gio was very much a part of putting together our stormwater management plan.”
Drew Dillingham in the town engineering department said Mr. Woodson’s contribution has been invaluable and has helped the town avoid lawsuits over nagging problems.
“He identifies problems or will have problems called in from citizens and he and I will work together for a solution,” Mr. Dillingham said. “I prepare the design and he carries it out. He always gets back for phone calls within a day, which even in the private industry would be pretty amazing.
“And he’s extremely easy to work with,” Mr. Dillingham continued. “It’s give and take; it’s not his way or the highway. But he always has great ideas as far as finding solutions.”
He also pointed to a two- or three-week period during which the EPA was auditing the town’s stormwater management program.
“He had his staff well prepared,” Mr. Dillingham recalled. “Upper officials in the highway department were more or less put on the dais in Town Hall and interviewed and asked a ton of questions. And they were well prepared and came through with flying colors.”