By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez
As originally published by Texas Border Business newsprint edition August 2017
Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, P.E. is McAllen’s City Manager and without a doubt a unique individual in public administration. The challenges dealing with municipal matters are monumental; his decisions without hesitation, are always made from a structured approach.
Rodriguez is very proud of his parents, Cesario and Beatriz Rodriguez. He was born the sixth of nine children. His dad, an authentic cowboy was originally from a rancheria near Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, in Mexico. His mother was born in Starr County.
He talks about his parents with love as if they were still alive. He grew up in a tight knit family, where humility and work ethic were instilled. “Those were the two things that I got from my parents,” Rodriguez told Texas Border Business.
“I was born in San Benito.” He said, “I suspect that it was the least expensive place for a parent to have a baby and that’s what happened”
In a few words, and told differently, Rodriguez meant to say there was no opulence in the family as he was growing up. “I was raised in Harlingen except for that day when I was born in San Benito.” According to Rodriguez, the hospital where he was born, Dolly Vinsant Hospital, closed just recently.
Proud of his parents, he highlights that when his father was young, he was as an accomplished horseman, helping with the tasks of the ranch, and working at herding cattle.
“One day, as a teenager in Harlingen, I got home and saw my father, which was unusual because he always worked very late.” Rodriguez noticed something about the way his father looked, that grin he had on his face. The curiosity was killing him as he walked up to him and asked in Spanish “What’s going on?” Don Cesario responded, “Hoy soy ciudadano Americano.”
His father had just taken the oath to become a U.S. Citizen. “I’ll never forget that day because he was so proud of becoming an American citizen, maybe, the proudest day of his life,” Rodriguez added.
Forgeing a Career
Rodriguez worked in another state and different cities in management positions before coming to McAllen,. From the beginning, Rodriguez’s life has been one of constant evolution, always looking to improve his personal and professional life. After graduating from Harlingen High School in 1981, he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Texas A&I University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Texas-Pan American.
He is grateful to his wife, Noelia Mancha, a McAllen native. He pointed out that she has followed him everywhere without ever questioning why they were moving. “My career took me to a lot of places; she has always been with me.”
His travels started two weeks after finishing college, moving to Oklahoma City. Rodriguez said he took the job because he needed the money badly. “As it turned out, it was a great job and opportunity. I worked there for many years, also in Tulsa, and in El Reno, Oklahoma,” he said.
His last job in the state of Oklahoma was in the Panhandle, from there he moved to Harlingen. “That was a big day in my career; I became the city engineer in Harlingen.”
Job opportunities kept coming; he landed the County Engineer’s position in Beaumont, Texas, which was different and challenging, and a different perspective to practicing engineering. Later, he moved to Weslaco at a time the mid valley city was growing their management team. “I was the engineer for Weslaco. I also had charge of many departments, so I was acting as an assistant,” Rodriguez said.
With the experience he had acquired, he was called to be Assistant City Manager in Harlingen. He did it for seven months, and then he was promoted to the City Manager’s position. “I was very fortunate that one of my mentors, Natalie Prim, hired me twice, and helped put me on this career path.”
Having served in high-ranking capacities in the State of Oklahoma, Harlingen, and Weslaco, it seemed like it was his last stop. It wasn’t, he was hired to become the Public Utilities (MPU) top man of the most prosperous city in the region, McAllen.
Making McAllen Shine
Rodriguez spent ten years building infrastructure setting McAllen at the top, if compared to other Valley cities. Being the top man at the MPU, he oversaw all water and wastewater operations, including a capacity of 59 million gallons of treated water per day and growing. He also experienced a unique situation in that he became an Assistant City Manager for McAllen, and had the dual title for many years. This was a set up that McAllen had not had before, nor since.
He had wished for many things, others he had worked for, but nothing was more fulfilling to him than being named interim City Manager on March 2014, and to begin as such on April 1. A few weeks later on in May 2014, Rodriguez was selected to fill the position of McAllen City Manager and to report directly to the Mayor and City Commission.
Sometimes people say that nothing prepares you for the future, in Rodriguez case, that saying fell short. Working with multiple municipalities prepared him to do what he loves most.
He has spent the last three and a half years serving as McAllen City Manager. However when he became interim city manager; his administration skills were quickly put to the test. City Manager Mike Perez retired on March 31, Pilar Rodriguez, an assistant to city manager (no relation) had left a year before, and another city assistant had stepped down; the only one left was Deputy City Manager Brent Branham. “Brent had scheduled his retirement for August 2014.” He continued, “I remember talking to the city commission at the time, and they were very concerned about the void that was occurring.” It is indeed true; public administration brings monumental challenges, and Rodriguez was facing them.
To give readers an idea of the city manager’s activities, he inherited 35 departments including two international ports of entry, an international airport, a municipal golf course, and the Convention Center District, and his direct oversight over the City’s $197 million operating budget.
Was this the greatest challenge to start a new position? “Yeah, absolutely!” Rodriguez continued, “It was definitely, and probably, one of the biggest challenges I had was to fill positions quickly. But also, it was to be able to maintain all of the programs and services that we do in the city.”
Rodriguez pointed out that filling those positions was the second most challenging, but the first was maintaining an organization of 1,800 employees with the help of Branham for a few months until he was able to find and fill the three assistant manager positions.
So, the hunt for assistants began, forty applications on his desk, all with strengths to fill any high-ranking position in a large corporation. Rodriguez knew he had a puzzle, finding the three missing pieces that were strategic left no room for mistakes.
“I was fortunate and blessed that I was going to be able to make significant appointments that don’t often happen in a city of our size,” Rodriguez said. His 30 years’ experience managing diverse fiscal, environmental, and community areas came in handy to find and select the right professionals to fill the vacancies.
Today, after more than three years, the selection of three assistants can be classified as outstanding. He brought Michelle Leftwich, who was the assistant city manager and planning director for Mercedes; Jeffrey “Jeff” Johnston was the assistant city manager and emergency management coordinator for Brownsville; and Joe Vera III, who was the city manager for Hidalgo, Texas.
Rodriguez said, “I hired three assistant city managers, and these are people that I have observed through the years in the Rio Grande Valley. I have seen what their strengths were and so I was able to take those strengths and put them where I needed them.”
How do you feel; have they performed well under your authority? “I feel very good about what happened and the choices that I made when it came to filling those positions.”
What inspires you to do what you do? “I don’t know if there’s one answer for that, first of all, you’ve got to be a little insane because this is tough work. But, the feeling that you get of accomplishment when you improve a community, when you improve infrastructure and bring something new to your city that has a significant impact on people, it always has a big impact on me as well.”
Can that be called passion? “Absolutely, if you don’t have that for public service you need to do something else.”
What concerns you about the future of the city? “McAllen is resilient and always has been. It was like that before I got here, it is now, and it will be when I leave, so, the future of the city is very bright no matter what.”
Rodriguez said that McAllen has to continue to do things that separate the city from everyone else. He recognized that today it is not easy when there are communities around McAllen that are successful because they are always adjusting their strategies and their visions to ensure success.
“You know, 20-25 years ago, McAllen was everything to Hidalgo County. The communities around us are growing, so, today it is challenging to shine. However it will not be such a challenge if our community wants to, and, I hope it does.”
What keeps you up at night? “You know, this is a blessing and a curse, this telephone.” He made that comment holding up his smart phone. “We are always connected, always, it doesn’t matter if I’m on vacation or if I’m sick!”
He said that sometimes he wakes up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and starts typing in his to-do list of his smart phone; solutions that he might apply. “Once I do that, I fall asleep like nobody’s business,” Rodriguez said
How many children do you have? “We have three, Bianca Beatriz is 26, the oldest; she’s an attorney and the Assistant District Attorney in Houston. Then, Briana Nic\ole 21, she will be a Junior at Texas A & M Kingsville, my alma mater, and, my son Roy II is 19. He is going to be a sophomore at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, also my alma mater.”
Do you regret moving so many times? “I tell people that for two reasons I haven’t left McAllen in 13 and a half years. One is that I saw how hard it was for my children to be moved around. This last move that we made here was very hard for my oldest.”
According to Rodriguez, at that time, Bianca Beatriz was going to be a freshman in high school, and it was heart breaking for him to watch her struggle. “I told myself I am not doing this again.”
Rodriguez finalized with this comment, “You know this is a great place; this is the best place in south Texas and one of the best in all of Texas. Because of that, and, the fact that I have brought my wife home, I say, you know, this is one step from heaven because my wife is super happy!”
Recently, Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, P.E. was selected as the “City Manager of the Year” for the State of Texas by the Texas City Managers Association, a worthy recognition for a man who loves public service.
Michelle R. Leftwich, AICP, CPM, ICMA-CM, Assistant City Manager
I’ve known Roy for a long time, for more than 20 years. In fact, he hired me, he was in the panel that hired me at my first job right out of college in Harlingen, when he was the city engineer there. I always admired his leadership skills ever since then. He was not an unapproachable person, and he was always down-to-earth. Roy gives you a chance to talk to about real issues, and he always seems to have such wisdom on whatever the situation is that you are up-against. I have valued his leadership skills over the years, and I’m very happy to be working with him here in the City of McAllen.
Jeff Johnston, C.E.M., Assistant City Manager / Deputy E.M.C.
Roy is a fantastic leader, one of the key things that I have seen from him in the time I’ve been with the city is a high level of integrity, both personal integrity and business integrity, as well as a desire to instill in the employees the very best of public service. Roy loves what he does, he has an attitude that encourages the staff through the city to be the very best that they can be. When we have issues that come up in the city, as it happens in all cities, he takes the lead to focus on looking at what happened and how can we make the city better for it. That’s been the case for years and years, in the City of McAllen, we work to make it better.
Joe Vera, CECD, CFEE, Assistant City Manager
Roy has always emphasized the theme of open governance, transparency and the need for continued support of the basic principles of honesty and integrity in public service. He has always said what he thought, meant what he said, and never made a commitment he did not keep. I have never doubted his sincerity; he has never given us any reason for doubt. Even in the toughest of times and situations, Roy has a passion, a sense of calling and the courage for doing the right thing and instilling that integrity into staff. We are fortunate to have a city manager who is not afraid of doing the right thing for the betterment of the community.