Cheryl Roberto '87 Contributing to Columbus as Utilities Director
Dean Nancy Rogers remembers Cheryl Roberto '87 as a talented student bent on using her law degree to better the lives of others. Fulfilling the prediction some 17 years later, Cheryl says, "I always wanted to work for the community and managing the Columbus Public Utilities Department is just one way to contribute."
Cheryl first began working for the City of Columbus in 1997 as an assistant city attorney, serving as counsel for the Utilities Department for three years. Previously, she worked as counsel for the Department of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania and as an attorney in private practice.
Becoming director of public utilities was a natural progression for Cheryl, who served for two years as deputy director and for eight months as the interim director, gaining valuable insight and experience.
On a daily basis, Cheryl oversees 1,500 employees, an annual $350 million budget, and a five-year capital budget that surpasses $1 billion. There is never a "typical" day at work, she says. Her fast-paced job includes working with stakeholder groups who may have an interest in a particular policy, working with the strategic planning department to align what the Utilities Department does on a daily basis with the Mayor's overall vision, and serving on a number of different boards that discuss development and utility issues. In her first year on the job, challenges included updating aging infrastructure, East Side flooding, and issues surrounding development of the Big Darby watershed.
The skills Cheryl learned in law school have been instrumental in managing people and resources and developing a roadmap for the Department.
"In law school, you develop skills to analyze and assemble diverse facts," she says. "In my job now, there is a lot of different information coming toward you from all directions, so you need to have the ability to understand it all in a meaningful pattern. Law school helped me develop those skills."
Cheryl is the first woman to hold the position of public utilities director for the City of Columbus. She says that even though she is often the only woman in the room, it doesn't make her feel unwelcome or at a disadvantage.
Another factor that distinguishes Cheryl from previous directors is that an engineer typically holds the position. "My undergraduate major was political science, so I really have no engineering experience," she says. "But when there is a public policy that makes sense, it just makes sense. In my years of practice, I have always taken depositions from experts, and I have had to read and study to prepare to have a conversation with that expert. It's no different here. I don't feel like I am at a disadvantage for not having the background because I realize that no engineer can be an expert on everything."
It's been nearly 20 years since Cheryl graduated from law school, and she says she and her friends were laughing about it the other day when they realized it had been so long. "I keep in touch with a lot people from law school," she says. "They were in the same section as me, and I knew when we were in school together that they were going to be life-long friends. I was very privileged to meet them and form such wonderful relationships."
Dean Nancy Rogers and Professor David Goldberger also made a lasting impression on Cheryl.
"Dean Rogers was always someone I felt I could go to with anything," she says. "And I really enjoyed the civil clinic with Professor Goldberger because I was able to help people with disabilities." Professor Goldberger recalls Cheryl as "one of those students you remember because she was so enthusiastic and cared so much about her clients. You knew from the minute you met her that she would be a terrific lawyer."
Cheryl likes to spend her free time with her husband, David Magee, an interventional radiologist, and her two children, Ben and Allison. The family likes to bike, ski, white water raft and hike.
Cheryl doesn't have a clear vision of what she will be doing in the years to come. "Being director is not a job you can stay in that long. You serve at the pleasure of the mayor," she says. "All I know right now is that I would like to continue in a public service career and continue to be passionate about what I do." Regardless of the next step, Dean Rogers is pleased that Cheryl has so successfully achieved her aspirations. "We are proud that the College produces graduates like Cheryl who are making such a positive difference," says Dean Rogers, and few would disagree.
Editor's note: Sandhya Bathija '06 is the author of this story