Virginia Beach’s new city manager, Patrick Duhaney, has no shortage of challenges ahead of him. On the job for a little more than two months, he steps into the pivotal role following the resignation of previous city manager Dave Hansen in August 2019 and as the Commonwealth’s most populous city grapples with the unprecedented health, social and financial issues facing the nation as a whole as well as the recent anniversary of the Municipal Center shooting. At 37, he brings a fresh energy and personable demeanor along with an impressive resume, most recently having served as city manager in Cincinnati, Ohio. He also makes history as Virginia Beach’s first Black city manager.
Duhaney was born and raised in Jamaica, is a U.S. Army combat veteran and holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and urban studies from Cleveland State University in Ohio as well as a master’s degree in community planning from the University of Cincinnati. When he is not working, he enjoys running, reading and spending time at the beach with his 6-year-old son. Duhaney says that he and his wife, who also have a newborn daughter, are both “enormous foodies” who “can’t wait to partake of the amazing diverse food here in Virginia Beach.”
We spoke with Duhaney recently about his impressions of the region, his professional approach and goals for the city. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
CoVa Mag: Can you share your general impressions thus far about the region and the city as a place to visit and a place to live? Have you had time to explore or enjoy yourself at all?
Patrick Duhaney: I think when you first come to Virginia Beach, you kind of get this narrowly minded or single-focus thinking that it’s just the Oceanfront, but then you just realize how expansive Virginia Beach is, and it’s more diverse culturally and resource-wise. These are interesting times for everybody. Normally when a city manager comes to a community, you get to meet a lot of people, shake a lot of hands, do a lot of face-to-face communication. Managing your onboarding in such a public-facing role in a pandemic is definitely unorthodox. And I am assisting the City to manage through the pandemic and all things associated with that—such as how we deal with our workforce concerns and help them pivot for the new normal and also help the community while you deal with all of the fiscal impacts associated with the pandemic. So, no, I have not had much time, but basically my general view of Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads is that it’s an awesome place to live, play and work.
You are taking on this job obviously at time of great challenges—from COVID-19 to social unrest and racial justice issues. In your view, what role do city governments play in tackling these big picture issues?
Everybody is going through that, and Virginia Beach is faced with another layer because we are a little more than a year removed from May 31, 2019, when the mass shooting led to the deaths of a lot of their family, a lot Virginia Beach’s employees. So, they are traversing that while they manage COVID-19 and the social unrest, too. It’s another layer of trauma that they are trying to navigate. The role that local government has is that we need to really be introspective on what we can do to get better, to focus on becoming better at getting better and being transparent as much as possible. Even though George Floyd did not die here in Virginia Beach, we need to look at our policies and our procedures to see how we can enhance our ability to be responsive to our citizens, to be transparent and to also ensure that every encounter that we have with our citizens is handled with the utmost amount of dignity, care and respect—especially in how we police and how we respond to first responder calls and runs.
You are coming from a similar role in the city of Cincinnati. What did you take away from your experiences there and how will that inform your approach in Virginia Beach?
I think what I take away from that job is just experience knowing that I know what it takes to manage a city, especially a city that is the hub of a major metropolitan area similar to Virginia Beach. Definitely there are a lot of things that are similar. Both have significant budgets in the billions of dollars. But there are things that are different. We had flooding in Cincinnati, but I didn’t have sea-level rise. We had a river, and a river is definitely not the Atlantic Ocean or Back Bay. So those kinds of things are on a different scale for me, and I am getting up to speed on how best to help the city position and tackle those problems. So, a lot of it is the same, but there is still a learning curve especially coming from Ohio that had a different way of structuring its local governments.
In addition to those we just discussed, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing Virginia Beach—and what are some of your goals for the next year or so?
Really what I am focused on now is trying to set up a performance management system. I think Virginia Beach is a community that has been blessed with resources, and I think a lot of times when communities are blessed with resources, they didn’t really focus a lot of energy and time on getting better. One of the things I like to do is kind of use the data that we already collect to inform our decision-making and help reenergize how we approach solving problems and delivering services to our citizens. Also, in light of COVID-19, rethink how we provide our services. We’re finding out that some jobs we can actually provide at a high level without having people work face-to-face. So, taking advantage of those opportunities and figuring out how those can lead to cost savings. And also tying performance management systems to Council’s vision.
You have said that transparency in government is something that is of paramount importance to you. How do you go about achieving that and communicating it to the public effectively?
I think a lot of that is having access to data and making that available to the entire community. Because public data is the public’s data. It’s not the City’s data. So, as much as possible being willing to be vulnerable and letting the city and letting the community know, hey, this is our information, this is how we are performing and understanding that it may not be perfect. A lot of it is really just making your data widely available and also creating a culture where we are not necessarily leading conversations or discussions with a defense mechanism or a wall but basically being open to accept, to be able to talk about how the data may not look perfect all the time but talk about how we are going to try to get things to be better.
Coastal Virginia is a community in which the military figures prominently. As a veteran, do you think your understanding of that military experience in helpful in your role as city manager here?
One thing that really attracted me to this community was just how much the military and that commitment for selfless service and sacrifice and duty is present. It’s in the bones of Virginia Beach. It’s really evident in how the community volunteers and rallies around each other in times of crisis. It’s something that I watched from afar when May 31 happened. It’s one of the reasons why Virginia Beach has probably the most successful volunteer rescue squad and the amount of people who participate in that program. To really manage a big city’s emergency medical response with volunteers is unheard of. I think a lot of that comes from the mindset, the sense of duty, the sense of selfless sacrifice, the sense of volunteerism that comes from the military background.
You were also born and raised in Jamaica. What was it like to grow up in Jamaica and how has that shaped your personality?
I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, and Jamaica at its core is a very impoverished third world country. So, I think it gave me that immigrant mindset. You focus on education and always working hard to do better. I think the best way to look at it is that, while I may not be the smartest person in the room, I may not be the most talented person in the room, but the thing about being a first-generation immigrant is that you are usually the hardest working person in the room because, you know, you came here on the backs of others. And that is always in the bones of a first immigrant child because it’s always there that your parents are telling you, ‘We made this move for you, so you can get better, so you can have better opportunities.’
Finally, what do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
I love taking my son to the beach because he is just an amazing lover of water. For my kind of spare time, I like to work out, run, jog. I used to read a lot, but then when you have kids you don’t get a chance to read a lot and the things that you are reading are things you’d rather not read [laughs]. Other than that, my wife and I are enormous foodies. We can’t wait to partake of the amazing diverse food here in Virginia Beach. That’s one of things that really brought us to this area is the different diverse cultures here—the Filipino community, the Thai community, the Vietnamese community. So many people come from different parts of the United States to create this great, like, food epic party that we can’t wait to traverse and get involved in.