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Heiser brings expertise to state board

Stark County Road Superintendent Al Heiser was elected to the state's association of county engineers and was the 2016 superintendent of the year. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

Al Heiser struggles to use his vacation time.

While some people can take their time off to relax and get away from work, Stark County's road superintendent worries about what's going on in the street department's shop back home. He answers every phone call, and he checks in frequently. When he stays in town during his time off, he oftentimes visits the shop in the morning.

"People can just take two weeks off and leave their job," Heiser said. "Maybe it's just me—I seem like I just can't leave. Not that I don't trust my employees. They're a wonderful bunch of guys. If I were to be not here, this place would still function. ... If I would go on vacation I still answer my phone. ... My wife's not real crazy about it."

His wife, Lisa, said he has always been very dedicated to his job. She has to ask him not to take calls during specific functions and sometimes enjoys working with him out with their cattle — where he often cannot get cell phone reception, she said.

"Typically a person thinks of their position as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday," she said. "But I tell you, he does not shut his phone off. If it rings he answers it. He will practically do a dive to answer that phone. ... He just really believes in what he is doing. He loves his job for one, but he also knows that things can go very wrong very quickly, so he stays attached to the job, which is a really good thing."

Heiser assumed his current position in 2004 as the county's first road superintendent. He began working in construction after graduating from Trinity High School and worked all over the nation for a contractor. He has more than 35 years of experience in the industry.

He was hired to help unite the three county shops — located in Dickinson, Belfield and Richardton. All three were run by a foreman, but Heiser's goal was to get all three shops working together rather than operating as three sub-counties. Since then he has taken the time to learn how the employees operate and how the shops share the burden of covering the more than 1,100 miles of county roads.

"The biggest thing is you have to earn their trust," Heiser said. "You can't just come in and say, 'There's a new sheriff in town, and this is how we're going to do it.' You've got to get them to buy into your program, otherwise you're never going to be able to get everybody to trust you."

Before the county had a road superintendent, the Stark County commissioners fielded many of the public's calls relating to road conditions, said commissioner Ken Zander. In many instances the process of responding was not as well-organized as it is now, he said.

"My experience with Al over the years is that he is someone you can trust," Zander said. "We have confidence in his ability to do his job the way we expect it to be done. When it comes to roads, one of the things is you can't make all of the people happy all of the time because somebody is always first, somebody is always last."

Heiser joins state executive board of engineers

As the road superintendent, Heiser also attends the yearly North Dakota Association of County Engineers conferences. This year he was asked if he would be interested in serving on the association's executive board, which he agreed to. The association's attendees voted and he was elected to the board, beating out two established engineers, Heiser said. He was also named Superintendent of the Year in 2016, an honor he was not expecting. As a member of the executive board, he hopes to bring the conference to Dickinson in the coming years.

Genny Dienstmann, the executive director of the association, said the board serves as the governing body of the organization representing county engineers, road superintendents and engineering firms all across the state.

"We're excited to have him on our board of directors," she said. "He brings a wealth of knowledge. He's very levelheaded, and he's just an all-around great guy. We're really excited to have him be a part of our board. He is going to be a great asset to our board of directors."

Heiser said he often returns to his shop after such conferences with new ideas of ways to better take care of the county's roads. He has presented at similar conferences about how the county blends its gravel in order to create a better product.

"Issues that we've had, other counties have the solution for them," Heiser said. "That's what networking is all about. You don't need to go out and reinvent the wheel because maybe a county down the line invented that wheel already and dealt with them issues."

His department blends a clay-heavy gravel with a rock-heavy gravel to better care for the roads. Stark County has more than 1,000 miles of unpaved roads to maintain, he estimated. His department spends much of its time blading the roads — smoothing them in a way that eliminates ruts, shapes the roads so water does not pool and conserves the gravel.

Ultimately, Heiser said he loves his job and enjoys the people he works with every day. The road department is an upbeat, experienced group, he said.

"I enjoy it. I mean there's days that you get your butt chewed from somebody because they didn't like the way we did things, but you know it's all part of it," he said. "I can honestly say when I get out of bed in the morning I don't say, 'God dang, I've got to go to work today.' I enjoy going to work every day."

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