As Carroll's public works director since 1979, John T. "Jack" Sterling Jr. has mediated countless neighborly disputes over drainage problems, road construction issues and uncontrolled weed growth.
In his12 years of trouble-shooting, Sterling, who announced last week that the will retire Jan. 2, has formed a keen observation about modern-day folk: They don't communicate well.
"One of the biggest problems I see is that neighbors don't talk to neighbors anymore," he said.
Instead, the combatants typically call his office to seek a resolution and avoid meeting with each other, Sterling said.
It was different in an earlier era, the Gettysburg, Pa., resident said.
"I grew up in Baltimore in a neighborhood where I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. We didn't have a phone, but if I did something wrong, my parents knew about it."
Sterling, 64, a gruff-looking, husky man with a friendly demeanor, an easy laugh and a direct manner, describes his role as that of negotiator and diplomat. When the county plans to buy a landowner's property for a public project or extend a road through a subdivision, diplomacy is needed to diffuse potentially volatile situations with residents.
"That and personnel problems are two of the most demanding functions of the position," said Sterling, whose department, which numbers 222 employees and six bureaus, is the county's largest.
A replacement hasyet to be appointed, said County Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy, addingthat the board likely would hire someone from within the department.Assistant Public Works Director Keith Kirschnick is a "logical candidate," he said.
The county probably would not replace whoever is hired to take Sterling's position, thus reducing the work force and saving money, Lippy said. The director's salary can range from $48,000 to $72,000; Sterling is paid $62,927. The assistant's salary ranges from $37,900 to $56,900; Kirschnick is paid $50,796.
Several who have worked for Sterling, or as his boss, describe him as supportive, straightforward and knowledgeable about the intricacies of construction, especially roads.
"Jack is very frank," Kirschnick said. "When he's asked a question, he tells you what he thinks, whether it was the answer you wanted to hear or not."
Benton Watson, chief of roadsoperations since 1980, said Sterling always has been "willing to listen to problems and go to bat for you." He has provided guidance, buthas allowed bureau chiefs to run their own agencies, he said.
Lippy said nobody in government knows Carroll's roads better than Sterling.
"You don't just go out in the street and find somebody like him," he said. "He will be missed personally and from a county standpoint."
Sterling is a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Helearned his profession through field experience, working for the Maryland State Highway Administration for seven years and for Genstar Stone Products Corp., a mining company, for 24 years, before coming to Carroll government. He served two tours with the U.S. Navy.
"I came through the college of hard knocks," he said. "I worked for a contractor sunup to sundown, seven days a week during the summer."
"That makes a big difference," Watson said. "He has a strong understanding of what it's like to be in the trenches."
Sterling cites the planning and construction of the new Carroll Community College campus, upgrading and expansion of the Hampstead and Freedom District sewage treatment plants and creation of the Northern Landfill as the most significant projects he worked on during his tenure.
The next director will face complex solid-waste issues and will handle projects to replace failing community water and sewer systems, he said. His successor also will grapple with the stringent environmental regulations that have made it tougher to build projects throughout the 1980s, he said.
The operating and capital budgets for the public works department have more than doubled over the past decade, but financing has notkept up with demands in recent years, Sterling said.
Consequently, preventive maintenance for many roads has been postponed, a condition that may become more obvious to motorists in the next five years, he said.
Sterling said one reason he retired is to spend more timewith his family. He and his wife, Caroline, have six children and 10grandchildren.