Alumni Voices: Lisa Roberts
Can you describe your career trajectory?
I think my career path was pretty typical to start. Then I got lucky. Three times.
When I was at Ball State, a summer internship was a class credit requirement. The first summer after starting in planning, I sent out a bunch of resumes to all of my local communities (Chicago suburbs). I had a few interviews but nothing worked out. The next summer, I sent out letters again. I had an interview with the Village of Wilmette, a place I had interviewed the year before. This time, I got the job. It was a great environment, and I learned a lot of the basics of local government planning. The following year my parents moved, and it wasn’t feasible for me to go back to Wilmette. I was fortunate to get a job in the planning office for the City of Elgin, which was a much different environment from Wilmette.
At the time I graduated Ball State, I still didn’t have a planning job. I was working at the mall when my Wilmette boss called to say they had a job opening. I got the job and stayed for four years, first as associate planner then as assistant planner. I left to get a master’s degree in planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I had gone to North Carolina thinking I might stay down there. As beautiful as North Carolina can be, I decided that I’d rather be back in Chicago.
That spring before graduating, I had seen my supervisor from Wilmette at the national conference in New York. He told me that the department assistant director was leaving soon. When I came back to Chicago, I interviewed for the assistant director position and got the job. After a few years, I did a brief two-year run as the director, and then the director came back and I got my job as assistant director back.
I have now been with Wilmette for a total of 25 years. In my observation, this is unusual. People tend to stay with local government jobs 3, maybe 5, 8 or 10 years. In my case, I have a great boss, the
My primary job duties are to staff the Zoning Board of Appeals, staff the Administrative Zoning Review Committee, and process temporary use requests including filming requests. I’m fortunate to lead or work on other projects as they come up: 2009-2013 zoning ordinance update, 2020 Census promotion, currently working on the village’s 150th celebration, and we are just starting a new comprehensive plan process. I also do a variety of other tasks associated with permitting and personnel.
Please tell us about a favorite project and why it makes you proud.
I’m most proud of the work I did on our zoning ordinance update. For the last 90 years, the village had basically two or three single family zoning districts. This was fine but as the zoning tools evolved, having so few districts didn’t allow for enough tailoring to the existing housing stock. The consultant did an analysis of existing lot sizes and grouped areas together by similar development patterns. The consultant then proposed a completely new way of regulating bulk that we on the staff disagreed with. Instead, we took the areas grouped by the consultant and proposed a separate package of lot size requirements, setback, bulk, and height requirements for each area based on our assessment of the existing housing stock, using the existing zoning tools we had. We ended up created 11 single-family zoning districts.
I’m proud of this because it was a solution better suited to the needs and desires of the community (and staff), and it accomplished the primary goals of the re-write: 1) craft the regulations to reduce the non-conformities for existing houses and 2) craft the regulations so that new homes would better fit the neighborhood.
What skills do you look for in a job candidate?
I look for people with customer service skills; being able to talk to people, project professionalism and helpfulness. Experience dealing with angry and upset people is a plus. Being empathetic is helpful. When it comes to property issues, people can be emotional. They may be attached to a vision of what they want to do and they don’t understand the purpose of the regulations. You won’t always be able to solve their problem, but you can offer suggestions (when possible) and assure them that they have been heard.
Good writing and graphic skills are always desirable. I like people who show initiative. Once in a position, own that position. You don’t have to know everything, you need to be able to ask good questions and offer up an idea on how you think something should be resolved. Offer to help other staff if you have time, even if it’s just returning phone calls or doing public notice postings.
Do you have a favorite Ball State or CAP memory to share?
There are a lot, but here are two:
In fourth-year studio, we were divided into two groups working with different communities. During studio, about six people in the other group were clustered around one of their team members, Trevor, using the computer (we only had one computer in studio then, as I recall). They were working on a color land-use map. I wandered over to see what they were doing. The conversation consisted of Trevor testing out colors on the map, asking what they were, and the other group members giving feedback. The color land-use map was being done by the color-blind person in the group.
Another time, I was with my classmate and friend Nancy Hill. I was upset about something – I don’t remember what, but it was class or school-related. We saw Dr. Linda Keys, and she told us, “Nothin,’ but nothin’ in planning is worth crying over.” I haven’t always remembered this, but it was good advice that I am now passing on. Nancy and I still talk about this, fondly remembering Dr. Keys.