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Roberts takes reins of DL's public utilities

Minnesota native Vernell Roberts started work as the new general manager of Detroit Lakes' Public Utilities Department last month, supervising the electric, water, wastewater and LakesNet internet service systems. He has over 34 years of experience in the utilities business.He and his wife Sharon have one grown daughter who lives in Colorado with her husband and son -- their first grandchild. Photo by Vicki Gerdes

Though he's only been on board as the general manager of Detroit Lakes Public Utilities for about a month, Vernell Roberts is no stranger to the lakes area -- or to the utilities industry.

"I was born and raised in the Henning-Deer Creek area," he said. "I've been in the utilities business for a little over 34 years now."

Roberts got his start in the industry as a contractor, working on the construction of transmission power lines.

"I've worked in Minnesota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and North Dakota," he said.

In fact, the job kept him on the road so much that it left too little time for him to spend with his wife and daughter.

"It's not really conducive to raising a family," he said.

So Roberts took an opportunity offered to him by the city of Loveland, Colo., to work in its lineman apprenticeship program.

"I became a journeyman lineman," said Roberts.

But after spending a few hours up in the air, working on power lines during a particularly nasty ice storm, Roberts thought to himself, "There has to be a better way than this."

"I made a commitment to myself to find a way to be on the inside looking out when the bad storms start, instead of the outside looking in," he said with a smile.

So while he was still working as a lineman for the city of Loveland, Roberts began working toward a degree in business management, taking courses at several area community colleges as well as at Colorado State University.

He was also promoted to the position of crew leader, supervising the other linemen on his crew, and during the last couple of years he worked at Loveland, Roberts "took care of all the substations for the hydro (electric) department," he said.

Then, he had a chance to come back to Minnesota, when the city of Wadena had an opening in its utilities department.

"I spent 8½ years in Wadena as the electric and water superintendent," he said.

As it happened, one of his predecessors in that position was Curt Punt -- who left Wadena almost 20 years ago to become superintendent of Detroit Lakes' public utilities department.

Roberts said that he had "the greatest respect" for Punt, who served as one of his early mentors in Wadena.

"We both served on the board of the Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which is the financial arm of Missouri River Energy Services," said Roberts. "I got to know Curt quite well."

A little over six years ago, Roberts left his position with the city of Wadena to take a job as the safety coordinator and job training and safety (JT & S) instructor with the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association (MMUA).

"I provided advanced technical training for electrical line workers," he said. "I provided JT & S instruction for 14 different communities, and worked with 11 different communities on the safety compliance side."

One of those communities Roberts worked with during his tenure with MMUA was the City of Detroit Lakes, which was how he became acquainted with the Public Utilities Commission members, and the various members of Punt's staff.

"I also put together the advanced training (program) for emerging leaders -- new supervisors within the state's utilities departments," he said.

That curriculum was designed to help "with the transition from being a worker to being a supervisor."

In addition, "I supervised the mutual aid crews for the Wadena tornado in 2010," Roberts said.

On the day the tornadoes swept through the region, he added, "I had one go through my backyard at about 4:30, and the other went through Wadena at about 4:55-5 p.m.," he said. "I was calling for mutual aid for Wadena before I even left my house."

Roberts, who still lives west of Wadena with his wife Sharon, said he was busy "patching the roof and covering up the holds and damaged areas" on their home when he was notified that a second twister had gone through town.

"It's really a life changing experience to go through something like that," he said.

Roberts said that he and his wife plan to find a home in the Detroit Lakes area as soon as they are able to sell their property in rural Wadena.

Once they get settled into the community, he added, he hopes to have more time to devote to his hobbies, which mainly involve spending as much time outdoors as possible.

"I love the outdoors," he said. "I do as much as I possibly can outside, even in the winter."

Some of his past hobbies have included building custom motorcycles and participating in motorcycle drag races.

"I did that (motorcycle drag racing) for several years," he said, but added that he is now retired from the sport.

One of the reasons why Roberts hopes to have more time to spend on his hobbies in the future is because "Detroit Lakes is fortunate to have a well managed, well run utility department," he said.

"I'm supervised by the Public Utilities Commission -- they're a good group of people," he said, adding that the staff of the utilities department is of equally high caliber.

"I have big shoes to fill," he said. "I'm looking to make small, incremental gains to improve service and efficiencies.

"I enjoy long range and strategic planning -- looking into the future and determining how to make what we have even better."

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454