Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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This week’s failed attempt to fire Steamboat Springs City Manager Jon Roberts — led by Steamboat Springs City Council member Walter Magill with council members Sonja Macys and Kenny Reisman as wingmen — revealed a deep split within the council regarding Roberts’ job performance. And while teeter-tottering council member Kevin Kaminski eventually teetered to the side of council President Bart Kounovsky and council members Cari Hermacinski and Scott Myller, who defended Roberts’ work, Kaminski easily could totter back to the Magill side if he isn’t satisfied with how Roberts responds to performance criteria the council may dictate at its Sept. 4 meeting.
Stating the obvious, Roberts serves at the pleasure of the City Council, and the council can fire him at any time. And it’s a safe bet that unless Roberts modifies his management style enough to satisfy the demands of Magill, Kaminski, Macys and Reisman — instead of insisting that he be judged by the criteria of the council that hired him — Roberts will be free to enjoy his home in Colorado Springs for more than just long weekends.
Readers may recall that this column called for far more due diligence in examining the tenure of Roberts as the city manager of Victorville, Calif., before he was hired as the city manager of Steamboat Springs. There was evidence — including a lawsuit that Victorville lost — that Roberts’ management style had rankled employees. There also were indications that Roberts was used to wielding outsized authority compared to many city managers and that the use of that authority had entangled Victorville in a number of questionable endeavors that were just beginning to receive legal scrutiny as Roberts departed Victorville. Bottom line: There was reason to think that Roberts’ management style in a city of more than 110,000 had not been without significant controversy and might not be a good fit for a city one-tenth that size.
On the plus side, Roberts was hired as Steamboat’s city manager after a far more extensive candidate search and public interview process than had been conducted for any of his predecessors. Following that process, a majority of Steamboat’s civic leaders were effusive in their praise of Roberts’ qualifications and their optimism for Roberts’ future. Further, Roberts’ experience handling large economic development projects in Victorville was viewed as a key asset by a City Council in search of someone to protect the city’s interests in the development of Steamboat 700. Once hired, most reports about Roberts were positive — no small feat in a major recession when city management has had to say “no” more often than usual to those seeking to feed at the public trough.
So, what changed? Certainly, as Roberts is fast to point out, the makeup of the council has changed twice since he was hired in January 2009. Still, Magill was the driving force in Tuesday’s attempted coup and Magill was part of the council that voted unanimously to hire Roberts. That’s why the solution to the current dilemma may turn on whether Roberts listened closely to the words of Magill on Tuesday evening. While offering a litany of complaints concerning Roberts, Magill allowed that the current circumstances of the city are different from those when Roberts was hired, and therefore, a different management style now might be required.
What has Magill been seeking from Roberts? Based on Magill’s statements at Tuesday’s meeting, it’s clear he seeks improved communication, leadership and collaboration. And in each of those areas, Magill — along with Reisman, Kaminski and Macys — had valid criticisms mixed in with a fair amount of personal and political chaff that all involved should have the maturity to set aside.
On balance, Roberts has served Steamboat well, and it would have been a mistake to have dismissed him this week. The city is about to undertake the most challenging budget since the onset of the Great Recession, and Roberts can be an asset at this difficult time. But he must demonstrate that he recognizes there are legitimate complaints with his management style. There is little doubt that Roberts has the ability to alter his style to meet the demands of a majority of the council.
The only question is, will he do so?
Since 1998, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.