‘The right man for the job’

Published 9:59 pm Monday, October 26, 2015

City Manager Patrick Roberts, pictured in front of City Hall last week, took the oath of office Monday.

City Manager Patrick Roberts, pictured in front of City Hall last week, took the oath of office Monday.

So much has happened since Sept. 16 that City Manager Patrick Roberts has barely had time to reflect on the fact that he has achieved the career goal he set in middle school.

But some reflection did come during his swearing-in ceremony Monday afternoon in City Council chambers.

He reflected, in fact, all the way back to the age of 3, when he learned the Golden Rule and uttered his first five-syllable word: cooperation.

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Those tenets of his character will be the hallmark of his tenure as city manager, Roberts hopes.

Roberts, a 44-year-old Portsmouth native, recently recalled being in sixth grade when he saw the Portsmouth city manager and asked his father who it was.

“He just explained the council is the elected body, and they make the rules,” Roberts said. “The city manager is a professional that’s hired to come in and run the day-to-day affairs of the city. I thought that’s certainly something I want to do.”

Roberts was like a sponge, soaking up everything he could about the job of a city manager.

“I had opportunities to do different things, but this has always risen to the top,” he said.

He graduated from Churchland High School in 1989, around the time the Cold War ended. In January 1990, he went to work for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

A few years later came a tremendous drawdown in the armed forces, and in July 1994, Roberts experienced what it feels like to be laid off.

“In hindsight, I think it worked out to my benefit,” he said. “I wasn’t working in my dream job.”

Roberts was accepted to the Virginia Military Institute just before his 23rd birthday. There he met John Rowe, a VMI vice president who is also a Portsmouth native and a former city manager in Suffolk and other municipalities.

He told Roberts what to study in graduate school. Roberts went on to earn his Master of Public Administration degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Roberts also met Robert Bobb, the city manager of Richmond. He told Roberts to work in the private sector first, at a bank or large insurance company.

The reason? Three things in common with city government: “Highly regulated, very scrutinized, and working with other people’s money,” Roberts said.

Once again, Roberts took the sound advice and worked for First Union National Bank in Glen Allen. He was quickly promoted and was supervising “a pretty big team” two years later when he left to work for the city of Richmond.

In Richmond, he worked in various capacities in Public Works, Community Development, the city auditor’s office and the city manager’s office.

He and wife, Kate, whose family had also settled in Portsmouth, had gotten married in 1997. When their daughters, Mary Kate and Virginia Clair, were born in 2005 and 2007, respectively, they started yearning to be closer to family.

Suffolk was the first place Roberts applied in Hampton Roads. Scott Mills — now acting deputy city manager — hired Roberts in 2007 to be assistant director of planning and community development.

It took less than a year for Roberts to be promoted to deputy city manager.

He said enjoyed the position because it gave him the opportunity to work with every facet of city government. But he was still one notch away from his ultimate goal, and the departure this spring of Selena Cuffee-Glenn gave him the final push.

“I never really doubted I could do it,” Roberts said, though he admitted to some nervousness because, he said, a change in the city manager almost inevitably brings turnover in other high-ranking positions.

He pushed City Council to open the application process to everyone.

“I thought that they really needed to make it clear any qualified candidate that was interested needed to apply,” he said. “They did not do that in 2008,” when Cuffee-Glenn was hired.

Two dozen other people applied, but City Council members have said there was no real competition.

“I have all of the faith and trust that anyone could have in Patrick Roberts,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said at Monday’s ceremony. “Patrick Roberts is nothing if not a humble and passionate city servant.”

Johnson said earlier she had received text messages of thanks from numbers she didn’t know on the night City Council voted to extend the job offer to Roberts.

“He takes difficult tasks and makes them look easy,” Johnson said. “He’s done it all. He’s done it from both angles.”

Isle of Wight County Administrator Anne Seward, the former finance director in Suffolk, has a unique perspective, having worked with Roberts and now being in essentially the same position.

“Pat’s the right man for the job,” she said Monday. “You’ve got to have a good, strong character and a lot of courage.”

Roberts said the priorities of his first year as city manager will include employee compensation, maintaining infrastructure and the budget as a whole.

He and his family live in the Bennett’s Creek area. His wife works at her sister-in-law’s dental practice.