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Public works director looks forward to farm life after 34 years

Tom Flinn’s accomplishments include overseeing county roads and repairing BART's metro rail tube under S.F. Bay

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Posted: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:39 am, Tue Jan 4, 2011.

Tom Flinn will turn 66 years old in February, but he hasn't taken more than a week's vacation since he was in high school.

He figures it's about time, so Flinn announced his retirement as San Joaquin County's public works director. His last day is Jan. 18. After that, he will settle on his 18-acre ranch in Victor with Flash, his Jack Russell terrier.

"He's had dogs since I've known him," County Administrator Manuel Lopez said. "He really loves his dog, which I think is an admirable trait for a human being."

Flinn's 34-year career ranges from repairing roads in storm-ravaged Marin County to working underwater in the BART metro rail tube that runs beneath San Francisco Bay.

He came to San Joaquin County as deputy engineering director in 1987 and became the county's public works director in 2001. He oversees 20 divisions, more than 380 employees and a $76 million department budget.

"Tom has been a great public works director," said Lopez, who was public works director prior to Flinn. "He brought with him some immense qualities, particularly on transportation issues."

Flinn has also been skillful in fighting for San Joaquin County's share of state transportation funds, even though the state has had its eyes on that money to solve other budget issues, Lopez said.

Before coming to San Joaquin County, Flinn worked for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District and Marin County.

In his two years at BART, Flinn helped repair the Transbay Tube after a devastating electrical fire took place in 1979. The tube has two bores for each direction of train travel between Oakland and San Francisco, Flinn said. There is also a "central gallery," a 5-foot-wide walkway where workers can safely stand whenever they hear a train coming.

"If you didn't move when the train came, you'd get sucked in," Flinn said.

Flinn's job was to upgrade a series of doors leading to the central gallery in case passengers and crew members needed to be evacuated while in the tube. It also gave firefighters a safe place to be.

"At that time, I wasn't claustrophobic," he laughed.

Flinn also expanded maintenance yards and expanded the tracks in downtown Oakland while working for BART.

He later became assistant public works director in Marin County, which was declared a disaster area by the state during three of his six years there due to torrential storms.

One of the members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors at the time was Sen. Barbara Boxer.

"She was very strong-minded," Flinn said. "She was liberal, as she is now. She leaned a lot toward social services."

Marin County hasn't experienced much residential and business growth because the county has traditionally resisted it.

"As an engineer, you want to go out and do things," Flinn said.

And that's exactly what he did. The roads needed frequent repair due to storm damage. One problem in getting roads repaired, Flinn said, was that many of the roads, especially in western Marin County, go through state park lands. That forced him to deal with state bureaucracy to get needed repairs done and regain access to coastal area.

Flinn left Marin County for downtown Stockton in 1987, partly because the commute traffic was so bad that it took him an hour to drive nine miles from his Novato home to the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael.

San Joaquin County provided a welcome change, he said, because it has a much stronger economic base than Marin County.

"It took me a little while getting used to the cultural issues here," Flinn said.

The Bay Area population is more transient, but much of San Joaquin County has families who have lived here for several generations.

"Once you understand it, it's pretty nice," he said.

Flinn learned the ropes locally from then-Public Works Director Henry Hirata, who taught him the political necessity of gaining community support to get things done.

Former Supervisors George Barber and Doug Wilhoit were also helpful in Flinn's early years, he said, and he really enjoys the present Board of Supervisors, whom he described as good businessmen and great leaders.

"I know I've never worked for a better board," he said.

Flinn also credited former Supervisor Jack Sieglock of Lodi for his leadership skills, especially on water issues, the San Joaquin Council of Governments and generally doing what is right for the community.

Supervisor Ken Vogel has proven to be a great replacement when Sieglock was termed out of office, Flinn said. And Denise Warmerdam, legislative assistant for Sieglock and then Vogel, has been great to work with, Flinn said.

Flinn said he had to learn about water issues when he came to San Joaquin County. It's something he considers as important as anything in his department, both in terms of trying to get more water from the Mokelumne and American rivers, flood control and Delta issues.

Lopez praised Flinn for his leadership in making sure county roads in rural areas are in good shape. They're better than rural roads in most counties in California, Lopez said.

Flinn also has a good balance of being good with the public, but being somewhat intense when he's focused on a particular issue or project, Lopez said.

The Board of Supervisors will probably choose an interim public works director in the second week of January, Lopez said.

In his retirement, Flinn has several ideas on how to occupy his time:

  • Travel, especially to Marin County, where a son and three grandsons live.
  • Satisfy his love for the historical, possibly by getting involved with the San Joaquin County Historical Society.
  • Return to school to take some non-engineering classes, such as history, art, photography and archeology.
  • Tend to his 18 acres filled with grapes and corn in Victor. He doesn't do the farming himself; others do the planting.

Or as Flinn put it, "I watch people grow grapes and corn on my property."

"I don't think I'll get too bored," he said. "I'll have plenty to do."

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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