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Q&A: Jack Berry Heads South

Takes Petersburg gig to help “right the ship.”


One of the frontrunners in Richmond’s mayoral race has resurfaced a few miles south, reuniting with a former colleague to help fix the financial mess in Petersburg.

Jack Berry, the former executive of Venture Richmond, was named interim assistant city manager of Petersburg under the city’s temporary leadership on Monday.

In October, the city hired the Robert Bobb Group, a consulting agency for municipalities, to address its $18.8 million debt and chronic overspending problem.

Bobb served as Richmond city manager from 1986 to 1997. Berry, who received Bobb’s endorsement in the mayor’s race, served as his deputy.

Since the election, Berry has spent most of his time renovating his Richmond house, he says: “I’ve been working on the barn.”

But when Bobb called to offer the Petersburg position, he bit. “His contract ends in 90 days,” Berry says, “so I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll come help for 90 days and see what we can figure out.”

Such municipal territory isn’t new. Berry served as county administrator in Hanover County for six years before joining Richmond Renaissance, the precursor to Venture Richmond.

At the Petersburg City Council meeting Tuesday night, Berry’s second day of work, he sat in the audience watching the Bobb Group work through line items in the city’s $68.4 million general budget. Department heads came forward to explain expenditures and defend their needs at a meeting that lasted three hours.

Style spoke with him after the meeting.

Style: What do you see as Petersburg’s biggest challenge in the next 30 days?

Berry: Resolve the structural problem in the budget and get to a situation where revenues equal expenditures. They’ve been overspending for years. And it’s clearly not sustainable. So we can get that squared away and they’re well on their way, as you can see tonight, that would be a really big gift to the city.

All these jobs are big jobs. But it’s all doable. There’re lots of opportunities to take advantage of and right the ship and get us back to even, so that going forward we don’t have these burdens we’re carrying -- of prior deficits and vendors that weren’t paid.

Then you go forward with a balanced budget and good leadership, good management. There are a lot of vacant positions that will get filled soon. And if that’s a strong team, I think Petersburg has really good days ahead.

What’s your relationship with Petersburg? Do you hang out here at all?

No, this is all new to me. I’m aware of the history and the incredible architecture in Old Towne. I don’t know a lot more than that. It’s just the relationship with [Bobb].

How’d he pitch it to you?

“Come help make a difference. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be rewarding. You can make a difference.” I was retired for a month or so. Well, I don’t know if I was retired or unemployed, I couldn’t decide which.

Now that you’ve seen the budget and understand a little more of what’s going on here, do you have a takeaway for Richmond in this situation?

Good leadership and managerial skills are essential to serve citizens well, and that’s been lacking here. It doesn’t take long for things to get out of whack if you’re not making good management decisions. It’s also why it can be fixed by bringing the skills to bear on the situation. You saw what a really great team [the Robert Bobb Group] can figure out in short order.

Are you here 9-5 daily now?

More than that so far. I’ll be here all day, every day. Driving back and forth.

If the city offered you something at the end of 90 days, would you consider it?

I like where I live. I’m a Richmonder so ….