HUNTERSVILLE – Just a few weeks into what became an 11-year stint supervising public works and engineering services in Huntersville – after more than two decades of various review, design, inspection and planning duties with the N.C. Department of Transportation – a bizarre event made Max Buchanan wonder if he had made the right career choice.
During a trip to California soon after he took the new job in 2008, Buchanan caught a glimpse of nationally televised news coverage about a police chase on Interstate 77 near Charlotte. A closer look revealed the target of the unusual moderate-speed pursuit was a Town of Huntersville public works pickup truck – hauling a trailer carrying the town’s riding lawn mower.
While dodging traffic, the truck swerved and began weaving. As the trailer fishtailed, the lawnmower tumbled off and bounced down the roadway and the truck crashed into a guardrail. As police cruisers and motorcycles closed in, news helicopter footage showed three people jump from the truck and begin running.
“There I was in California, watching this and thinking ‘What the hell?’ I saw ‘Huntersville’ on there and started wondering if I should even come back,” Buchanan said last week, recalling one of the stranger moments during his time working for the town.
He did come back. And learned the news-making incident began when suspects already being chased by police confronted town employee Lonnie Whitley, who was working along Sherwood Drive. They threatened Whitley with a gun and hijacked the town’s truck, trailer and mower for what proved to be their highly unsuccessful getaway.
It’s one of many municipal works tales – along with complaints about a “possessed” trash can and another about buzzards blocking a driveway – Buchanan recalled from his time in Huntersville during a conversation just a few days before his June 28 retirement.
“I wish we had written a book,” he said.
A sensible approach
If that book is written, in addition to the light-hearted moments, there will also likely be multiple chapters about a topic Buchanan – as well as those who describe him – emphasizes: common sense.
In his role as the town’s engineer, Buchanan was the point person responsible for processing plans – for sidewalks, intersections, roadways and more – from conception to design to review and, hopefully, approval. But the web of requirements, restrictions and revolving regulations now linked to nearly each phase of every project has evolved into a part of the job he will not miss.
“In a lot of it, the common sense aspect is gone,” Buchanan said, adding a recommendation for reading “The Death of Common Sense,” Philip K. Howard’s 1995 book about the modern consequences of extensive, overlapping and, at times, offsetting bureaucratic guidelines.
“It gets crazy, and I know it’s frustrating for other people because it’s frustrating for us,” Buchanan said – describing abstract stipulations that can kill or derail projects as “hurdle bombs,” just one of the “Max-isms” co-workers, town administrators and elected officials have come to know.
“The rules were probably put there for a reason, but sometimes there’s just no common sense involved,” Buchanan said. “We’re juggling marbles trying to check every box, meet every requirement and get a project done, then here comes another bucket of marbles.
“I think sometimes people think we can just show up, roll a section of sidewalk off a truck and be finished,” he said. “They just don’t understand all the work and effort involved.”
And the “they” category, Buchanan said, often included elected officials who wanted explanations from him.
“I’ve had a good relationship with all the elected officials, and the folks over there (at town hall) have always been cooperative and given me everything I need,” Buchanan said. “And I think a big part of the reason is I’ve always tried to give them common sense answers about what was happening.
“I don’t know of a better way. Sometimes, you just can’t do what you want to do. It’s aggravating, but it’s the way it is. And you also can’t do what we do and make everybody happy. In fact, trying to do that is the secret recipe for failure.”
Town Manager Anthony Roberts, with 18 years of municipal management experience in north Mecklenburg and 13 months at the helm in Huntersville, agreed that Buchanan’s direct and down-to-earth approach to issues was a valuable asset.
“A lot of engineers, by the nature of their job, want to stick to policies and numbers,” Roberts said, “but Max brought a common sense perspective to it. In discussions on some technical issues – the whys and why nots of something – a lot of times you can see folks get lost, glazed over a like a donut, trying to understand. But Max made things clear.
“I hate he’s leaving. I’ve only been here a short time, but I know what he’s done and what we’re losing.”
Buchanan, who turns 56 later this month, is newly married, headed to a private-sector job and moving back to the North Carolina mountains where he was raised. He said the changes are exciting, and while he will not miss the “politics” that sometimes intervenes in municipal planning, he had nothing but praise for the experience, and the people he worked with, in Huntersville.
“I can say, even with the aggravation every now and then, I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “I thought about looking for something new a few years ago, but it’s such a good group of people here, and I wanted to get as much done as possible working with them.
“I know I’ll miss that part of it, but I’ve told them I’ll be back every now and then to see how they are doing.”