‘You question whether what you are doing is the best thing’: VB public utilities department still healing from mass shooting

Virginia Beach Mass Shooting

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — You can argue that no department in the city was affected more by the mass shooting than the Department of Public Utilities.

Of the 12 people killed on May 31, 2019, six worked in public utilities on the second floor of Building 2 at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. As did one of the four who were seriously injured. The shooter himself was a nine-year veteran of the department.

The department, which has more than 400 positions, is charged with providing water and sewer service to the largest city in the commonwealth.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Bob Montague, director of the department, was tasked with keeping the service delivery going to the citizens, while preparing to lead a workforce with individuals who had experienced the trauma of seeing their coworkers executed.

“Certainly, ranks as the worst day of my life,” Montague said last week. “Very hard for any of us to believe that we are already a year out from this event.”

Montague spoke to 10 On Your Side from his temporary office inside City Hall. Until the shooting, it was the Budget Department’s conference room.

“I can tell you that the recovery on our department or any other departments is nowhere near complete,” Montague said.

Bob Montague

Emotional toll

Just over a month after the shooting, public utilities employees described to city council members the daily horrors they experienced returning to work.

“On my way to work I have — I have one spot I throw up at every morning,” said Daryll Johnson, a public utility service supervisor at the time.

Montague said still today members of the department sometimes cannot mentally work a full day, often being triggered by new information about the case.

“Our members are human beings and they were impacted in a way that is hard to understand unless you go through something like this,” Montague said. “For whatever reason, they find themselves in a state of mind where they aren’t productive and aren’t able to work and need to go home.”

The department has also seen a fair amount of turnover. Currently, the business division of public utilities, which is comprised of call center, billing, accounts payable, finance employees, has a vacancy rate of 26 percent. The engineering division’s rate is 17 percent, which Montague explains represents progress.

“I don’t know necessarily why people choose to leave. But there is not a doubt in my mind some left because of the shooting,” Montague said.

Montague is hoping he can get special permission to continue to hire several positions. A citywide hiring freeze has been implemented because of COVID-19.

Work Conditions

Not only did the department lose the lives of six members, but they lost their workplace.

Besides the Information Technology Department in the basement of Building 2, the structure has been mostly empty of people since the shooting. Days after the shooting, Mayor Bobby Dyer hinted employees working there that day would never be forced to return.

While there is a plan to one day return the department to a permanent facility at the Municipal Center, for last year and for the foreseeable future, employees are scattered in buildings across the city.

“Temporary facilities … are less than ideal,” Montague said.

The all-important call center is currently set up in a former school cafeteria, which shares space with billing and back-office administration functions.

“It can become quite noisy,” Montague said.

In other cases, employees are working out of closets turned into offices and trailers. It’s an issue that isn’t unique to just public utilities.

Ultimately, coupled with the emotional toll, it has helped cause a decrease in productivity.

“I would ask that the public maintain their patience with us as we continue to try to heal,” Montague said.

Personal Reflection

Montague has worked for the city in some capacity since 1995. He was promoted to director in 2016 when now Acting City Manager Tom Leahy was promoted to deputy city manager.

In the year since the shooting, he has also been forced to learn what it is like to play the role of a therapist.

“In trying to lead, you start to question whether or not if you’re in a position where you are capable to do that,” Montague said. “You question whether what you are doing is the best thing for your members.”

Claims were made following the shooting that the shooter committed the shooting as a result of a toxic work environment. However, an independent review team hired could not confirm a widespread presence.

“By and large, the vast majority of our members think that it’s a good place to work,” Montague said. “But the feedback is good. I think it’s good to know where you feel like there is concern so you can try to address it.”

Montague said within the last year, he has made it a point to realize he is not always going to “get it right.”

What keeps him coming to work?

Montague says he perseveres because he knows that on the day of the shooting, his employees who were killed were doing their best to provide the best water and sewer service for the residents of Virginia Beach.

“We can’t think of a better way to try to honor them than to carry on that legacy,” he said.


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