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McDonald-Roberts, A Fixture In Local Government, To Step Down From City Next Month

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Valerie McDonald-Roberts will step down from her post in city government in early 2019.

Valerie McDonald-Roberts was Pittsburgh’s first chief urban affairs officer, and when she steps down next month, she may be its last.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced her resignation on Christmas Eve. “In addition to being a tremendous public servant, Valerie is a trusted adviser and friend,” he said in a statement. "We’ll miss her.”

McDonald-Roberts has held the post for five years, handling issues that include racial equity, immigration and neighborhood development. She says she needed to “take a breath” after juggling family obligations with a job that included sprawling responsibilities.

“Everything feels so squeezed,” she said Monday. “Instead of stretching it out and being squeezed, it’s best to step down now. … There are so many things within my purview, within my lane.”

She said she would “remain civically engaged and supportive of this administration and the progress that it has made.”

McDonald-Roberts will remain on the Housing Authority board as the mayor’s appointee. She said that affordable housing was a focus of her efforts, even if activists have lamented the length of time it has taken to ramp up efforts like a fund to finance such housing.

“It is slow, but it would be non-existent without the administration taking the stance that it has,” she said. “The one thing the community needs to understand is that without the mayor’s support, without the tone that he is setting, it wouldn’t happen. Capital forces would continue to have provision for market-rate housing which is more profitable for them. “

McDonald-Roberts acknowledged frustration in other areas.

“Equity and inclusion in terms of contracting has been the biggest hurdle for the city,” she said. City contracting procedures seek to provide opportunity for woman- and minority-owned firms, but participation by such companies has fallen short of goals. Peduto convened a task force to delve into the problem this past summer.  

“The city is working diligently, but that has been my most frustrating issue,” said McDonald-Roberts. “It’s just changing the culture … in terms of understanding that you must have contracts contracts considered for minority- and women-owned participation.”

McDonald Roberts was among an executive team that Peduto convened in 2013: Her departure means that leaves operations head Guy Costa as the only remaining member of that original cabinet.

A mayoral spokesman confirmed Friday that the city may decide not to hire a replacement for her, but instead reshuffle her job responsibilities among other managers.

The question of what the city does to replace her “is very open,” McDonald Roberts said. “There has been no decision made on how to handle my departure.”

One challenge is that McDonald Roberts boasts a background that would be hard to replicate. She is among the most prominent black female leaders in the city, with a three-decade-long caeer in public service that includes elected office on Pittsburgh’s school board and city council, and in county government.

“Those kind of experiences, they’re just not often come by,” she said. She said the structure of Peduto’s administration had changed since 2013 as well. Originally, she said, “his concept was to have a very flat structure: eight chiefs that report directly to him. Through the years it’s become a lot more vertical, where the chief of staff basically is like the deputy mayor. That’s the structure that we’ve had in the past. … It’s become a structure that works for Mayor Peduto and the city.” 

And in the end, she said, "The mayor will do what is right for this city." 

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.