Steamboat Springs Jon Roberts survived a bruising 40-minute performance review Tuesday night that started when a Steamboat Springs City Council member said he wanted the city manager fired.
Roberts’ future as city manager was put in question just before Tuesday’s meeting, when an agenda item to discuss his performance in executive session was added to the council’s slate at the request of member Walter Magill.
Roberts, city staff and the audience at Centennial Hall listened as three City Council members criticized Roberts’ management style, his level of communication with the council and city staff and his involvement in the community.
But it soon became apparent there weren’t enough votes to terminate Roberts’ employment, which led to a unanimous decision to instead discuss his job description and expectations at the council’s Sept. 4 meeting. Even Magill eventually said he was willing to give Roberts a chance to improve.
So it was that the city manager who was hired in February 2009 left the meeting with both his job and a chance to address the concerns of the council members who criticized him.
“When I chose to get into city management, I was mentored so that I was fully aware that a city manager is a little unique,” Roberts said after the meeting. “I recognized that when I got into this profession, this (criticism) comes with the territory.”
The seven elected council members ultimately agreed they need to do a better job of laying out what they expect from their city’s top employee, a task they hope to accomplish Sept. 4.
Magill began the discussion by questioning Roberts’ communication with the council, the community and city staff.
“I’d say we have leadership issues. We have communication issues. We have collaboration issues,” Magill said.
Magill further criticized Roberts for taking frequent vacations and not sending council members enough emails about city issues, including the recent hiring of a public works director.
Magill’s concerns about Roberts were joined by similar criticisms from council members Sonja Macys and Kenny Reisman. Macys said Roberts undermined the city’s efforts to secure pay raises for its employees and that he has harbored a morale problem among city staff. Reisman said there was a “disconnect” between Roberts and the community.
Other council members disagreed with the criticisms, as did Public Safety Director Joel Rae, who heads the police and fire departments.
Rae said his boss has attended numerous fire and police department meetings in the past six weeks and is responsive to their needs.
Council President Bart Kounovsky and council members Cari Hermacinski and Scott Myller similarly defended the city manager and said they wanted him to continue in his role.
“I still feel that Jon’s strengths outweigh his weaknesses,” Myller said. “I think we can work through some of the issues we’ve seen recently.”
Hermacinski lauded Roberts’ leadership of the city during difficult economic times and criticized some of her fellow council members for what she described as micromanagement.
Council member Kevin Kaminski then steered the council toward a compromise.
While he acknowledged that he also had some concerns about Roberts’ leadership, Kaminski said he didn’t think it was fair to fire Roberts without giving him clear expectations and a chance to correct the issues council members raised about his performance.
“We’re firing a bullet without him knowing,” Kaminski said. “(Roberts) has got to know what he’s done and have the ability to remedy (this) situation.”
Minutes earlier, Kaminski asked Roberts if he wanted to keep his job.
“Yes, I would like to keep my job,” Roberts said. “I’m still enthusiastic about it.”
He said he was hired to fix a fiscal calamity, and while that task has been “challenging and daunting,” he said the city has made headway.
“We have a good team and I’m proud of how this city has responded to this fiscal calamity,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting started with Magill’s motion to have the discussion about Roberts take place in executive session. But it fizzled after Hermacinski read a statement condemning the use of executive session.
“Since November 2007, the council has consistently chosen the path of transparency and it has made progress in limiting the use of executive sessions,” she said. “Jon’s hiring process was conducted in the same spirit. His hiring was the first time that the Steamboat Springs City Council conducted the final round of hearings in public session. We should continue to act in the same spirit when discussing Mr. Roberts’ contract tonight.”
The council then agreed to discuss Roberts contract publicly at the end of the meeting. Roberts did not object, saying he deferred to the “collective wisdom of the council.”
Before she criticized Roberts during the performance review, Macys said she was disappointed the discussion was happening publicly. She added that the council had been discussing concerns about Roberts’ performance since “about a month ago.”
“To me this is surprising and awkward that we’re having a public session about this,” Macys said. “I think there was every opportunity for this issue to be discussed quietly. Since about a month ago these conversations have been happening certainly with this council and the city manager. Just because the newspaper has not published it or has not picked up on it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening.”
Tuesday night was the first public discussion about Roberts’ performance. Roberts had a performance review May 1 but it was not announced and was conducted entirely in executive session. He makes $153,000 a year plus a benefits package worth between $30,000 and $35,000 a year. Roberts’ base salary is 10 percent less than it was when he was hired, a result of the furloughs put in place for nearly all city employees during the economic recession.
He said Tuesday he was happy to retain his job but was still in a state of uncertainty.
“I think that I’m still in a wait-and-see mode, because I have to wait and see what kind of changes to my contract (and job description) they are going to propose,” he said.
In the short term, Roberts said he plans to double down on his efforts to better communicate with the council but that they would have to meet him halfway.
“It’s not a one-way street,” he said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com