Retiring City Clerk asks Seal Beach to ‘Choose Civility’

Retiring Seal Beach City Clerk Robin Roberts at the Dec. 10 City Council meeting. Photo by Jeannette Andruss

Walk into City Hall in Seal Beach and one of the first places you’re likely to stop is the City Clerk’s office. The open counter in the middle of the first floor of the building on Eighth Street is a de facto help window for residents and visitors.

Since 2015, City Clerk Robin L. Roberts, a certified Master Municipal Clerk, has been the friendly professional fielding questions at that counter.

Her official job is to manage the city’s records and municipal code, administer and oversee elections, respond to Public Records Act requests, and ensure the city complies with federal, state and local laws.

But often, Roberts is the first person to respond to residents with any issue at City Hall, usually at the sound of a ding of a counter bell.

That includes countless drivers upset by parking tickets. Or the woman who found a hive of bees in need of saving. Or the man who wanted help tracking down $10 million he said he found in Corona while baling hay. “He just wanted to tell his story,” Roberts said during a recent interview as she explained how she sat down with him, took notes and referred him to a social services agency.

After Dec. 28, Roberts will no longer be at Seal Beach City Hall. After 15 years of public service, she is retiring to work in the private sector.

“She’s done incredible work to professionalize the City Clerk’s office,” City Manager Jill Ingram said during the Dec. 10 Seal Beach City Council meeting where Roberts was recognized for her retirement. Ingram praised Roberts for implementing new technology to increase transparency at City Hall including a new program for Public Records Act requests.

“It’s been an honor to serve as the first appointed City Clerk,” Roberts said. Ingram hired Roberts in 2015. Previously, the City Clerk was elected. Before coming to Seal Beach, Roberts worked in Westminster, Fountain Valley, and her hometown of Huntington Beach.

“We anticipate issuing a press release formally announcing the appointment of a new City Clerk after the holidays,” Ingram wrote in an email to the Sun.

Incidents at City Hall Spark

‘Choose Civility’ program

Roberts’ legacy in Seal Beach may be the nascent “Choose Civility” program. “It has been one of my most favorite and my most passionate projects in my career,” she said.

The program, aimed at promoting civility in municipal government, became a city goal after a striking moment at a Strategic Planning meeting in September. Roberts stood before council members, executive staff, the police chief, and the public at Fire Station #48 and became emotional as she described an increase in people coming to City Hall hostile, angry, sometimes yelling and harder to calm down.

“It’s scary, it’s hurtful and when you’re always trying to do the right thing and you’re always trying to be fair and impartial, this job is getting harder and harder,” Roberts said.

Also at the meeting, Seal Beach Finance Director Victoria Beatley said staff was talking about putting bullet-proof glass up at the counters after speaking to colleagues at other cities having similar discussions.

Roberts said the anger is fueled, in part, by social media and by the state of discourse in national politics, which she said at times has been anti-government.

“I’ve not had so much aggression at the counter in any other city that I’ve worked for,” Roberts said in an interview last month. Roberts noted there were a lot of good interactions and has even received thank you notes from residents. “The large majority of residents are kind and caring; however, there is an increasing number of residents who have a skewed view of government workers.”

One incident at City Hall was pivotal in Roberts’ decision to take action. As she explained it, a resident was at the counter trying to file paperwork and was getting frustrated. At one point, the resident made a punching gesture over the counter toward an employee.

“I was so appalled,” Roberts recalled feeling when she viewed surveillance video of the episode. “My hair stood up on my arms.”

Roberts said she spoke to the resident later, who she said was apologetic but also described the gesture to her as a joke.

That compelled Roberts to do more.

“It was tangible,” Roberts said. “The way the communication occurred, that person felt that what they did was OK and I clearly don’t believe it was OK. And how can I prevent that from happening? This is what spawned Choose Civility.”

In October, the Seal Beach City Council unanimously approved the Choose Civility program which, among other things, offers principles for how staff, elected officials and the public should strive to act at City Hall. That includes treating everyone courteously, exercising self-control and embracing respectful disagreement and dissent as democratic rights.

Roberts is putting up a page on the city’s website which outlines the program and she hopes the city will host “Civili-teas” for residents and city staff to “embrace opportunities to meet and have informal discussions about city-related challenges and future prospects.”

What’s next?

Roberts plans to return to the private sector. She has earned her real estate license and hopes to help clients interested in downsizing. She also plans to help grow her family’s construction business.

She’s been married to her husband for 30 years, has three daughters and six grandchildren.

“It’s scary switching your career again,” Roberts admitted but added, “I feel like I’ve served with a purpose and now it’s time for me to move on to something new.”