Seeing the possibilities

Road guru Rick Dondro is Auburn-area County Employee of the Year
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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When Rick Dondro looks at the miles of blacktop that crisscross Placer County, he sees nuances passing motorists seldom consider. North Auburn’s Bell Road is one example. Dondro sees a two-lane country road two decades ago. Dondro sees the hundreds of hours of meetings and planning sessions that it took to forge a workable community vision on what it could be. He sees the machinations of government as supervisors and county staff members worked over several years to find more than $4 million to put a widening project together on that country road. And he sees a completed project, now nearly five years old - a four-lane ribbon of blacktop replacing the two lanes, providing a safer, smoother detour off congested Highway 49 that saves times and lives. For 30 years, Dondro has seen possibilities. Placer County Department of Public Works’ assistant director when he retired in December, Dondro worked on many of the major road projects spanning the county. He started in 1977 as a civil engineer with the county after earning an engineering degree from Sacramento State and working for the city of Livermore for three years in traffic engineering. In the late 1970s, the county’s population was about half the 330,000 it is today and grazing land was starting to be eyed for large-scale housing development in the south county. One of Dondro’s first projects was development of an Auburn-Bowman community plan “ a joint effort between the county and the city at a time when Highway 49 north of Luther Road was still two lanes and relatively rural. Thirty years later Dondro can look back at projects he has had his hand in throughout the county. Bell Road widening and Highway 49 improvements are two major-impact efforts he’s played a key role in locally. In South Placer County, he’ll be watching as work starts on the Lincoln bypass knowing he’s played a role in keeping the county’s interests in mind as it moved forward. Dondro can also drive down many roads and see small changes he’s helped bring in. Auburn-area Supervisor Jim Holmes, who selected Dondro as Employee of the Year, said that when he first came to office four years ago, he took a drive with the senior traffic engineer to identify the need for stop signs and warning signs. Dondro was able to take care of those requests, as well as deal with the larger issues, Holmes said. “He’s been a quality consultant for all the people in Placer County all these years, taking care of problems large and small,” Holmes said. Celia McAdam, Placer County Transportation Planning Agency executive director, said Dondro has succeeded over the years by not only being a good engineer but a good communicator. While retired, Dondro continues to work as part-time extra help with the county on special projects. “He has such a breadth of knowledge,” McAdam said. “As he transitions into retirement, my hope is that he stays around in some capacity.” Public Works Director Ken Grehm also praised Dondro for his ability to bring different groups to the table as partners in solving sometimes-complex traffic challenges. “It’s not just what he knows but how he uses that knowledge that sets him apart,” Grehm said. Dondro said that he’s always attempted to be flexible as he works on projects with disparate groups and individuals. “There’s a need to think outside the box and explore new ideas, new technology,” he said. Dondro, 57, grew up in South Pasadena, married his high school sweetheart, Ann, and has raised a family while making his home in Weimar. The couple’s daughter, Sarah Gillmore, is also a civil engineer and works in the county’s Community Development and Resources Agency. Their son, Adam, is with the state Assembly Budget Committee staff. Dondro’s time off sees him hiking in the Sierra Nevada and American River canyon, gardening and woodworking. He’ll accept the award Friday at the Auburn State of the Community Dinner. “It’s quite an honor, Dondro said. “It’s very gratifying to be selected from a group of such fine people at the county.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at