Roberts blasts media accounts of his departure

Retired public works director accepts city's resolution of appreciation, takes a shot at the Daily Post

Public Works Director Glenn Roberts, who retired from Palo Alto after reaching a legal settlement with the city in October, took a bow Monday night (Jan. 10), as well as a parting shot at newspaper accounts that he said grossly mischaracterized his departure.

Roberts, who directed the city's Public Works Department for 18 years, retired in October after the City Council approved a settlement giving Roberts $130,655 and a special proclamation in exchange for an immediate retirement and a promise not to apply for another city job.

The settlement stated that a "dispute has arisen between city and Roberts regarding the continuance of Roberts' employment with the city" and said the parties wish to "save the time expense" of potential claims and litigation.

On Monday, just after the council approved a special resolution of appreciation for Roberts, he went on a counterattack against media reports that suggested he'd been ousted.

He singled out the Daily Post, which erroneously reported that Roberts had filed a claim against the city (it later ran a correction), that he was fired and that he is making more money in retirement than he did while on the job.

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, Roberts proclaimed in his acceptance speech that "reports about my departure have been greatly exaggerated." He then quoted Twain again and said, "If you don't read the newspapers you are uninformed. If you read the newspapers, you are misinformed."

Referring to the Post stories, Roberts said he decided "not to let myself dwell about it, but to take it for what it is," namely fiction.

Roberts then alluded to Ernest Hemingway, notorious for his drinking habits, and extended what he called a "peace offering" to the Post to "help inspire them to better fiction" -- a bottle of "Johnny Walker" Scotch whiskey, which he submitted to the city clerk for safekeeping.

Roberts, 61, said he was approached by the city last year about the possibility of an early retirement and a buyout. He said he agreed because he felt a retirement would afford him more time to spend with his family. To make it happen, Roberts said city officials asked him to sign a settlement agreement, which he did.

"I never intended to sue the city," Roberts said.

Roberts' reputation took a hit over the past two years after the hasty and unpopular removal of 63 trees on California Avenue in September of 2009 -- an action that infuriated residents and prompted him to issue public apologies. Roberts also had to scramble last year to close a gaping deficit in the city's refuse fund -- a deficit brought about in part by the city's waste-reduction initiatives.

At Monday's meeting, the council focused on the positives and unanimously approved his resolution of appreciation.

The proclamation acknowledged his leadership in developing local parking structures, maintaining Palo Alto's streets, sidewalks and trees, and enhancing the city's emergency preparedness and pollution-prevention efforts.

Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd read the resolution, which was followed by a round of applause from the council and staff in the Council Chambers audience.

Roberts thanked the council and city staff, particularly the employees of the Public Works Department, for allowing him to have what he called an "extremely rewarding" and "extremely challenging" career in Palo Alto.

"This has been an incredible opportunity -- literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me -- that I could not have realized anywhere else," Roberts said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Bottom line, the Utilities Department is a mess of incompetence.

Like this comment
Posted by Tim
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 10, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I agree with Mr. Roberts on the Daily Post...they have problems with getting the facts right when it comes to stories dealing with the city.

Like this comment
Posted by Been the subject of misinformation myself
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 11, 2011 at 5:38 am

Having been the target myself of extremely shoddy "journalism" from an article in New York to the San Jose Merc to most articles in the local Weekly, with the exception of one very accurate woman who has since left, I have to agree with his use of Twain's assessment of being uninformed by not reading the papers, and misinformed if one does.

I believe him.

Apparently some things never change.

Like this comment
Posted by Say-Goodbye-Glenn
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2011 at 7:42 am

> Bottom line, the Utilities Department is a mess of incompetence

While this statement is no doubt true, Mr. Roberts was in charge of the Public Works Department.

> Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd read the resolution

Nancy Shepherd is one of the least knowledgeable Council Members ever to sit on the Dais.

What's interesting about Roberts departure, is that no one seems to be "singing his praises" .. they seem to be taking pot shots at the Daily Post because it printed a number of articles that were unfavorable towards Roberts (as well as other departments) over the past couple of years. While Roberts seems to be claiming that everything that was printed about him was "lies" (or perhaps he used the word "fiction"), given how little the other local papers do in the investigative reporting area .. it's really hard to know what the truth is in this town.

The City government does not believe in transparency. Roberts did not provide a yearly performance report to the Council (and thereby the residents), so it's really hard to know what he accomplished over the years.

The P/W Dept. does use a GIS system, but Roberts seemed hostile to all ideas involving increased used of computers. Perhaps this is not a totally true assessment of the man, but he (or his people) have produced no "white papers", or vision statements, about how the P/W Department would produce higher quality service in the coming years--using computers and information technology.

As an example, everyone complains about the lack of (or seeming lack of) coordination of "street cuts" necessary to allow utility and communications upgrades. A scheduling program would help to solve this problem. Yet, Roberts never said "he was going to solve this problem with state-of-the-art technology". In fact, he never said he was going to solve this problem at all.

One thing that he did do, which probably won't get a lot of credit from the City Council, but the residents should give him a round of applause for, was to stand up to the village idiot's (aka Bern Beecham) plan to swap land along the Baylands with local auto dealerships. This was truly a lame idea, and Roberts was able to stop the idea in its tracks by costing out the proposal at a price that showed how impossible it would have been for the City to break even.
Beecham was beside himself with anger over Robert's numbers, but there was nothing he could do to disprove them.

Roberts doesn't seem to have done much to build a management team--at least from an "outside view". It will be interesting to see how replaces him, and what that person does after he/she takes the helm.

Roberts never publicly championed the cause of the declining infrastructure--at least in public. So, virtually all of the $550M in known backlog will fall into the purview of the P/W Dept. The next Director will need to become far more proactive than Roberts has been about getting these projects into the public's eye. In the past, this job seems to have been taken on by the City Manager (or the CM's Office). This Office has too many jobs to do to channelize everything that's important to the city through its doors.

Based on reports in both the Weekly, and the Daily Post, all Roberts seem to have on his mind was the "fiction of the Daily Post". Whatever he did do that was positive seems to have eluded the media, and the public.

Roberts won't be missed. He seemed to be over his head in a modern world that required more use of his head, than his hands. He should have been moved on years ago.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2011 at 8:03 am

Though I live in a nearby community, I follow Palo Alto news in all 3 local papers. The level of hype on both trivial and significant stories is appalling. No coverage of important but boring issues, dogged efforts to magnify the trivial into melodrama.

It is NOT journalism, it's sales -- advert/readership drives these papers, not facts.

Like this comment
Posted by CHinCider
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2011 at 8:55 am

To "Say Goodbye" -

You suffer from the same malaise as the media Roberts cites, in that you fail to check your facts before arriving at erroneous conclusions and then puting them in writing. A pertinent example is your discussion of the street cut issue.

Street cuts are not the purvue of the Public Works Department, but rather are initiated by the Utilities Department. Public Works is responsible for repaving the streets. The problem used to be that Utilities would dig up the streets shortly after the street had been paved. Prior Utility Directors were unwilling to change their scheduling to solve the problem.

The issue has been resolved for some 4 or 5 years now, since new Utility Director Val Fong has been on board. With the initiative of an Audit recommendation developed in collaboration between Roberts and former Auditor Sharon Erickson, Public Works was able to put in place a GIS (computer) based system of advance scheduling on a 5 year horizon to coordinate the paving and Utility street cut schedules. Utility Director Fong has beeen a full partner in that implementation.

I could elaborate further on your mistaken perspective, but think that the point has been made.

The real issue with Roberts is that he simply was a modest man perhaps not well suited to a political environment like that in Palo Alto. I often urged him to do more in the way of self promotion and publicity for his efforts, but he preferred to stay in the background. I was pleased to see him finally stand up for himself last night, but, alas, too little too late.

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2011 at 9:40 am

The problem with pavement cuts has not been resolved, as anyone who lives in Palo Alto may observe.

Like this comment
Posted by Say-Goodbye-Glenn
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2011 at 9:51 am

> Street cuts are not the purvue of the Public Works Department,

The issue being discussed was that of streets being paved (by the P/W Dept.), and then street cuts happening almost immediately thereafter. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that Roberts is/was the only person responsible for this problem, but certainly there was never any leadership on his part (in a public way) to admit, and correct (or mitigate), this problem.

> The problem with pavement cuts has not been resolved, as anyone
> who lives in Palo Alto may observe.

What he said ..

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 11, 2011 at 10:57 am

If Roberts wasn't planning to sue the city, why did he sign an agreement promising not to sue?

Why, if he is voluntarily retiring, did he sign an agreement that states that he has had the opportunity to consult legal counsel? Why is such a clause needed if the retirement is voluntary and his idea?

Why did the city have to pay him additional money, over and above what he would normally receive for accrued sick time, etc.?

Also, if Roberts said the Post's estimate of his pension is wrong, then what is the correct figure? He didn't say. He must know.

Whatever he accomplished with the City in the past 18 years will be overshadowed by the spectacle he created last night. He came off as one of those nuts who harangues the council each week about fluoride or police misconduct. Is this the sort of behaviour Roberts exhibited on the job? If so, the City is better off without him.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 11, 2011 at 11:27 am

Rather than give a bottle of wine to the press, Roberts should have bought himself a beer to cry in, or perhaps some cheese to go along with his "whine". Conduct unbecoming a professional. So much for a graceful exit.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 11, 2011 at 11:44 am

"Say-Goodbye-Glenn" thanks for the great post. As "Observer" said, the issue with coordinating street cuts and paving is far from resolved. Arastradero was paved last August and has been dug up by Utilities several times since then. Paint on the pavement at Arastradero and Coulombe indicates more work is going to happen again soon. Although "CHinCider" wants to make excuses, Public Works is responsible for the streets and blaming others isn't part of a director's job. If Glenn needed help coming up with a solution, he wasn't a good fit as a director. Of course, street paving doesn't even compare with the sewer rehab mess happening in Barron Park right now.

Compared to other cities on the Peninsula, Palo Alto hasn't kept up with technology and it's hurt the effectiveness of Public Works. AT&T had a trench covered with slippery steel plates for almost a year on the corner of El Camino and Matadero. This is along a commute axis for kids on bikes crossing El Camino to Barron Park school. Every time we called, it was "ground hog day" and Public Works had no idea what was going on. Did the glue dry out on their Post-it-notes?

I can understand Glenn's discomfort with having his name and salary published in the paper. But, his performance at last night's council meeting was just sad.

Like this comment
Posted by Absent
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 11, 2011 at 12:23 pm

He agreed to leave in exchange for $$, a promise never to attempt to work for the City again, and a Council proclamation on what a great job he's done? I'll take that "proclamation" with a grain of salt.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm

"Conduct unbecoming a professional."

A truly apt summary of Robert's tenure. Kudos to this council and the new city manager for cleaning up the Benest debris.

Like this comment
Posted by A Taxpayer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm

After reading the Daily Post coverage of Robert's exit speech, and comparing it to the Palo Alto Daily News coverage, that was detailed and reported so readers could feel as if they were there, the Daily Post article came across as "sour grapes" reporting, reading as if their reporters were from a 6th grade class- and 6th graders would have done a better job, no doubt.

So it's not new that journalism and the WORK it involves is gone. But the Daily Post ought to have special recognition for the least credible reporting in this area.

We all know we can only believe perhaps 1/4 of the news we read in the Daily Post. The (bad) reputation of the Daily Post preceeds it.

From the Daily Post's reporting of this event, it's believeable that there was a meeting, Roberts spoke, shedding doubt on the Daily Post's journalistic skills.

But credible details will not be in the Post. If details are provided, they're likely enhanced for sensationalism and tweaked, to make the story have punch, perhaps with a misleading headline; anything goes.

If Palo Alto taxpayers want real facts, we read the Daily News and the PA Weekly - and local coverage of the San Jose Mercury News.

I always thought it odd for Roberts to be able to sue the city because he was the head of the department at PW. He ought to have had the last word on projects that didn't go to council. So how could he have sued? It never made sense to us.

The Daily News reported it could have been over age discrimination - that makes sense. But the Daily Post made it appear it could be over job performance, harping on old news, and omitting anything that was good over the past many years. It was very misleading but it makes for juicy news, albeit false. Residents are aware of this, but I'm glad Roberts spelled it out in his own words. Whatever he did badly in his leadership of PW, he did good in his exit speech.

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Best comments so far...

Roberts won't be missed. He seemed to be over his head in a modern world that required more use of his head, than his hands. He should have been moved on years ago.

"Conduct unbecoming a professional." A truly apt summary of Robert's tenure. Kudos to this council and the new city manager for cleaning up the Benest debris.

Like this comment
Posted by A Daily Fan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Glenn Roberts can blast the Post all he wants but somehow it's just a fun paper to read. Like many in Palo Alto I have to get my Post fix in the morning with my coffee before I can start my day!!!

This city would be a lot duller without Diana Diamond and the Post!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Rose Mary Marlowe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by who cares
a resident of Triple El
on Jan 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Glenn got $130,700, eight weeks paid administrative leave, and a big kiss and special proclamation from city council all for signing his early retirement papers. Ha Ha. I doubt very seriously if he really cares what anybody in Palo Alto thinks, least of all the experts posting here or the print media. Good job Glenn!

Like this comment
Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2011 at 10:26 pm

A street gets paved, and then a gas leak happens, and there is a whole cut in the new pavement. Maybe Utilities ought to just leave the gas leaking so they won't have to cut into the new pavement! Or the water leak, or the sewer line that's collapsed. What a hoot! One time a lady came out of her house, claiming that no one could dig a hole in the street in front of her house, because she was having a party that weekend. Palo Altans - what a joke!

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 13, 2011 at 11:08 am

As for media coverage, bureaucrats like Glenn Roberts would love to not have to worry about the Post. The Weekly and Daily News would be content to print whatever they're told by people like Roberts without asking any questions. But they're forced to did deeper and investigate stories more because they fear the Post will scoop them. The Post is providing a valuable service to the public by exposing people like Roberts ... and Roberts confirmed that point at Monday night's meeting in a backhanded way.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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