Saying farewell to a public fixture
By MAUREEN BYRNE
© St. Petersburg Times,
SEMINOLE -- Mel Rackett waves to a fellow employee as she passes his office in the city's public works garage. "Hi, hon," he says to her.
"I'm not supposed to do that," he says jokingly. That is, not in today's politically correct work environment, he says. She is even a good friend of the family, he adds.
Times have changed, says Rackett, the longest-serving city employee. And he says the time has come for him to leave Seminole, the city he has worked for and lived in since 1981.
Rackett, 58, is retiring after running the Public Works Department for two decades. Considering that the city was born in 1970, he has worked for Seminole for two-thirds of its life. His last day is Friday.
"I'm just going back," he says of his move this month to the Binghamton, N.Y., area, where he was born and raised.
Rackett was hired by Seminole in 1981 as a foreman for the Public Works Department. Back then, 4,500 people lived in the 1.5-square-mile city. But over the years, annexations have boosted the city's population to 16,000 and its size to 4 square miles. The department's budget increased, too, from about $200,000 to $1-million.
Within six months of his hiring, Rackett was promoted to superintendent after his boss, Frank Pruitt, died of liver cancer. He was in charge of seven employees. Although the city has grown, the number of employees in public works has stayed the same.
That's because the city used to do all the work itself, Rackett says. That's not the case anymore. Now the city contracts with others to do large projects, such as beautifying highway medians, repairing major drainage problems and cleaning most of the city's nine buildings.
"We didn't used to contract anything," Rackett said. "We did all of the work."
Including building the city's float.
For years, Rackett was in charge of designing and building floats that appeared in parades at city functions, the annual Fun 'N Sun event in Clearwater and the yearly Festival of States celebration in St. Petersburg.
A float was dedicated to baseball the year the Tampa Bay area got the Devil Rays. Another year, a red and white float proclaimed Seminole the heart of Pinellas County. Five years ago, the float was blue with huge plastic foam sea horses, dolphins and shells for a Christmas in Florida theme.
But a couple of years ago, the city did away with its float tradition. It was too much work for too little fanfare, Rackett said.
"I'm glad we're out of the float business," he said. "It was fun at first, but then it became a hassle."
Rackett says other things have gone by the wayside, too, such as doing favors for residents. Times were different back in Seminole's early days, he says.
"It was just being a nice neighbor," Rackett said. "A lot of that has just changed. You don't do that anymore. And I can understand why."
In 1998, Rackett was suspended for a week and put on probation for a year for allowing an employee to deliver city-owned mulch to a resident. The city permitted residents to come get the mulch themselves, but City Manager Frank Edmunds disciplined Rackett for having an employee use a city dump truck during work hours to take the mulch to the resident.
"At one time, that would have been okay," Rackett said. "Maybe it was some bad judgment on my part. There were some hard feelings, but the hatchet has been buried and it's over and done with."
Rackett says when Seminole switched to a city manager form of government it was a difficult time for him and other employees. Until 1995, Seminole's daily operations had been managed by a part-time mayor.
"There were a lot of changes," Rackett said. "Some were easy and some were hard."
But the city is better off today because of those changes, he says. Seminole is becoming a real city, he says, and that calls for a more professional style of leadership.
Rackett, who never attended college, says all of his experience was learned on the job. That's not the way it's done anymore, he says. A college degree and formal training are needed for today's public works director, he says.
"The needs for a public works director were changing and I didn't have the qualifications for those changes," he said. "It was very simple. There was no hidden agenda. They just needed somebody else."
Rackett says it's time to let the new guard take over. "I'm not a paper person," he said. "Never have been and never will be."
In January, Allen Godfrey was hired as Seminole's public works director. Rackett took a supervisor position. He earns $48,370 a year.
"Mel is a real asset to the city," Godfrey said. "He knows about (maintenance) stuff that went on years ago. He was my go-to guy. He is really going to be missed in this department."
There have been other changes in public works as well. Like replacing the city's old water truck, a handmade 750-gallon tank put in the back of a dump truck, with a brand-new 2,200-gallon tanker truck. Other new equipment includes a bucket truck, a pickup truck and a boat.
A 1-acre lot on 70th Avenue N eventually will house the Public Works Department when it moves from City Hall. A former funeral home on the property, which was in major disrepair, will be razed to make room for a new building.
Rackett will begin a new job on Oct. 1 as a production supervisor in a coil manufacturing plant. But when he's not working, the husband, father of four and grandfather of 11, will spend time golfing and fishing.
He says he is looking forward to living in a community where the nearest traffic light is 5 miles away. He will miss family, friends and co-workers here, but not the area, which he says has become too crowded and over-regulated.
Rackett says he hopes Seminole will maintain its its small-town flavor. "I just hope it doesn't lose its identity," he said. "I never looked at Seminole as a city. It's just a nice community, and with annexations and growth, I hope it doesn't lose that."
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