Advocate Profile: Shawn Kelley, Ph.D., P.E., M. ASCE


Sean Kelley headshot

Shawn Kelley Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE is an active member of the Vermont section. He works as a firm shareholder for GeoDesign, Inc. a consulting firm headquartered in Middlebury, CT, providing geotechnical, construction, and environmental engineering consulting services to the design and construction industry. He works in the Windsor, VT office managing civil engineering projects related to geotechnical engineering. He specializes in earth retention and slope stabilization projects, deep and shallow foundation design, geotechnical instrumentation, and in-situ soil testing. 

Kelley is currently a Region 1 Governor and the Past-President of the Vermont Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He serves on the Committee on Education (COE) for ASCE National and previously was a committee member on the Committee on Geographic Units (CGU). He is a member of the intersociety committee on Raise the Bar in Vermont. He is corresponding member on the Raise the Bar committee for ASCE and a corresponding member on Leadership Training committee for ASCE. He is also the Legislative Committee Chairperson for ACEC/VT.

Kelley received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, master’s degree in geotechnical engineering and Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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How did you become interested in and get involved in advocacy for your profession?

When I moved to Vermont in 2004, I became actively involved in the Vermont Section of ASCE.  I have served on various board-level positions and as president of the Section in 2007-2009.  After attending a few workshops for section and branch leaders as well as the president and governors forum, I became aware of ASCE’s government relations department and understood the importance of this advocacy.  After attending an ASCE National Fly-In, I became “hooked” by the excitement and exhilaration of seeing the political process in action.  I also loved how easy it was to connect with my legislators and their staff.

What issues have you highlighted/focused on when communicating with your legislators?  Funding for infrastructure is always a highlight.  Vermont may be a small state but it has many large infrastructure projects that need federal funding.  It is very easy to talk with our VT delegation because they understand the issues and they want to help. The VT Statehouse has an open door policy and any constituent is welcome to come, meet and mingle with their legislator in the hallway.

What levels of government have you focused your efforts on?  (Local, State, Federal). Is there something that prompted you to focus your efforts there?  I wanted to focus on the state level because VT legislators are easily accessible.  As I stated, the Vermont Statehouse has an “open door” policy that is informal and welcoming. State legislators are always willing to talk and listen.

How do you gather information and prepare to do your advocacy work?

I rely on the work that ASCE National has done on the Federal level. On the local level, I track legislative bills that are related to civil engineering using the Vermont legislative bill tracking system that is on the state’s website.  I have generated an on-going list of the bills, the sponsors for each bill, and the stage the bill is in within the legislative process.  This list shows me where we can provide input to state legislative committees, send emails to state legislators, or contact state agencies to ask how we can help support important bills.

What have you learned through your activities as an ASCE advocate and citizen lobbyist?

It is a long process and persistence and perseverance is key. The legislative process does not happen overnight and some topics are very controversial. For example, raising the gas tax to fund infrastructure projects is always a heated discussion.

Has the experience helped you improve skills you utilize personally or professionally?

I believe communicating with legislators in oral and written form has improved my communication skills.

What has been challenging about being an advocate? 

Time management, especially when a bill “gets hot” on the state legislative floor.

What methods have you found effective in working through those challenges?

 I try to maintain a balance between work, volunteering and personal life, which can be difficult. It is definitely a balancing act.

What have you found rewarding about your efforts?  Meeting new people and developing an extensive network of contacts.

Is there a particularly memorable experience you can share?

There was a large effort a few years back while I was working with ACEC/VT section in getting the State of Vermont contracting terms for consulting engineers updated.  The old terms required consultants to indemnify the state for all acts, errors and omissions.  As we know, professional liability insurance for engineers does not cover these types of terms. Through our efforts with the Agency of Administration and working with a local state legislator, we were able to get those terms updated so that only negligent acts, errors and omissions are part of the indemnification clause when contracting with the state on engineering design projects.

Have you felt that your efforts have made a difference?  How?

Yes, especially with updating the indemnification terms in the standard state contract for engineering design services.

What advice would you give to someone interested in getting involved in advocacy?  Do your best to stay updated on current activities with government.  ASCE does a great job with the key contact program and “This Week in Washington,” which provides information on the federal and state levels. The amount of information can be overwhelming because so many issues are being discussed in Congress and within each state’s government, but if you focus on a few select topics, it is more manageable.  It is important to be willing to provide support when needed if you are on a government relations committee (sometimes at a moment’s notice, depending on the voting stage of bill).


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