At 37, Todd Feland is younger than many of the people who work for him in the Grand Forks Public Works Department, where he has been the top guy for six years.
He looks even younger, with his tousled hair and boyish grin, with untucked shirttails escaping a collegiate sweater. If the city put on a Harry Potter show, he'd be the obvious lead.
But the job has aged him.
For years, Feland has been at the eye of the storm over the city's search for a new landfill site: advisor to elected city officials, drafter of plans, interpreter of federal regulations, target for the angry, confused and disaffected.
It would be wrong to call Feland the city's Garbage Czar, and he is quick to discount his importance. "I'm just the bureaucrat here," he said. "I'm not the policymaker."
In any case, the long and much-contested search for a new landfill site has consumed much of his time and energy, raised his public profile and been the great challenge of his professional life so far.
"I think it weighs heavily on him," said Gina Feland, 36, his wife and a speech pathologist at Grand Forks Central High School. "He wants to solve this issue, and he works very hard. He sees the importance of it."
It has helped, apparently, that he majored in psychology in college.
"That helps me understand where people are coming from where their pain and anger are coming from," he said.
"It taught me how to listen, and it showed me the importance of not being phony. If I say we'll work on this, or this is what the city will do, I'll try my very best to demonstrate good faith through action."
Curt Kreun, a council member who has worked closely with Feland on the landfill issue, calls him "a good young man, a straight shooter who has studied this umpteen times."
But "trying to explain all of it to all the parties involved it's a no-win situation," Kreun said. "Sometimes, I think it comes across to people that we think we know everything. But we've been working on it since the '90s, and we have to move this along.
"We need to take the best information, the best technology, the best science and keep the emotion out of it. And that's what Todd has been good at."
Eliot Glassheim, another council member, said that Feland "has taken an awful lot of heat, but my sense is he remains fair and decent and open . . . with people who don't want a landfill near them."
Dexter Perkins, a UND geology professor and environmental activist who has kept a watchful eye on the city's landfill search, offers a similar assessment.
"He's in a tough job, having to deal with budget constraints, citizens who want one thing and council members who maybe want something else," he said. "I'm impressed with how he does that. I've never seen him get emotional or upset or angry. That's amazing, considering the abuse he's taken.
"I don't know if he goes home and beats his kids to relieve the stress, but he has handled the adversity well."
The kids are fine, Gina Feland said, although they'd like to see more of their dad.
"A lot of nights, we don't see him until 7 or 8 p.m.," she said. "He'll put the girls to bed and then be gone for an hour, an hour and a half, walking. That's his stress-remover, walking."
Feland said he understands that people are frustrated, "and we're a handy target. Sometimes people personalize things like the landfill. I try not to take it personally."
The waiting area outside Todd Feland's office has recycling boxes for rechargeable batteries, cell phones and "techno waste," along with the latest copy of Waste Age magazine.
He recycles paper, cans and plastic at home.
"But I could be better," he said, a tinge of guilt in his voice. "All of us have thrown things in the garbage and thought, 'Thank God somebody else has to take care of that now.' But all of us are trying to be better people."
He was raised in Mandan, N.D., where his father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center and his mother worked in vital records for the state Health Department. They instilled in their son a respect for science and organization.
He and Gina knew each other at Mandan High School but didn't start dating until they went off to college Todd at UND, Gina at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
Todd thought he might be a clinical psychologist.
"I've always liked to listen to people," he said. "I liked the idea of guiding people toward something better. But you had to go five or six years beyond an undergraduate degree, and the research you had to do was so mundane."
In 1994, he had a five-month internship in the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. That fanned his interest in public policy issues, and in the fall, he began law school at UND.
He and Gina were married by then and had an infant daughter, Hannah, now 13. (Daughter Molly is 7.) Gina was in graduate school, and Hannah struggled with some early health problems. In addition to law school and responsibilities at home, Todd worked weekends at Target.
"By Halloween, I was physically and mentally worn out," he said. "Probably spiritually, too. I knew I couldn't continue.
"That was very hard on me. It was the first time in my life I wasn't able to get through something. I'm a perfectionist, and I've always wanted to do well and not disappoint people or myself."
He switched to a master's degree program in public administration, and early in 1997, he had an internship with the Legislative Council's fiscal staff in Bismarck, working with the appropriations committees. That fed his interest in public policy, and in the fall as Grand Forks began to recover from the flood he was hired by the city's engineering department to work on the flood control project.
He worked his way up and, in 2001, was named public works director.
"I enjoy this job," he said. "I get a very diverse view of life in the city water, streets, sanitation, public transport and I get to work on things that matter to people. It's not just signing invoices and shuffling paper."
Do more with less
Developing a new landfill "is incredibly important for the city," he said. "It will affect our ability to grow and draw new industry. And time is running out."
The problem is not so much a capacity issue, Feland said, but the likelihood that federal authorities soon will stop granting the city waivers for its existing landfill, which is too close to the airport. Birds attracted to the garbage pose a threat to aircraft.
"The next 50 years are going to be much more challenging" for local governments, Feland said. "We have an aging infrastructure, we're growing, there's more regulation coming and the federal government is not going to be there (with funding) like it was in the 1960s, when we built things like the interstate highway system.
"We're going to have to do more with less, and local people are going to be asked to pay more at the same time that so many people are disaffected with government at all levels."
The city "put a lot of good-faith time and effort into the Turtle River site," he said, referring to a landfill proposal derailed by legal action. "The people there just didn't want it. Now, we have to move on."
Two other potential sites, one north of Grand Forks and one to the south, are under consideration. Feland and Kreun said they expect a decision will be reached by January or February.
"Whether it goes north or south, there will be compromises," Feland said. "There are going to be positives and negatives either way, and the City Council will have to decide.
"I hope that in time people will say, 'Well, it isn't as bad as we feared. It's not that big a deal.' I have a view of what the end will be and how people will feel about it then. We saw that with the dog park and the Greenway. There was a lot of scrapping over those, too, but now I think they're widely appreciated."
He took a deep breath and smiled.
"You just have to get through the in-between time."
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or firstname.lastname@example.org.