Steamboat Springs City Manager Jon Roberts

Steamboat Springs City Manager Jon Roberts

Steamboat City Council, city manager still have issues to work out

2 days after contentious review, Jon Roberts says he is waiting for clear direction from City Council

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Should Jon Roberts remain as Steamboat's city manager?

  • Yes 32%
  • No 42%
  • I don't know enough about his performance 26%

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Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012: Roberts' job safe, for now

Monday, Aug. 6 2012: Some city council members at odds with city manager

— Jon Roberts still is digesting the contentious performance review he endured earlier this week.

At times, the Steamboat Springs city manager's review was unpleasant and heated. Council members were candid with their criticism of the city’s top employee, and Roberts didn’t hesitate to fire back at times.

“I certainly cannot claim I enjoyed Tuesday night,” Roberts said in his office Thursday.

But Roberts, in his fourth year as the city manager, survived the effort by some members of the Steamboat Springs City Council to fire him Tuesday.

After the review, Roberts said he went home to tell his wife he still had a job. But he also went home knowing that at least three of his bosses have serious doubts about his leadership, the way he communicates with council members and city employees and his connection to the community.

Community involvement

Tuesday's performance review started with council member Walter Magill's call to fire Roberts. Among Magill’s criticisms of Roberts was that he isn’t more involved in the community. Fellow council member Kenny Reisman shared that concern.

Magill also criticized the city manager for taking frequent vacations outside the community.

On Thursday, Roberts defended his level of community involvement. He said he is an active Rotarian and participated in the campaign to secure a new ski jump on Howelsen Hill.

But he also said he has no plans to “live the life of a city manager” seven days a week. As such, Roberts will continue to leave Steamboat Springs almost every weekend to camp and fish, to visit his daughter in Denver and to spend time in Colorado Springs, where he and his wife sponsor cadets at the Air Force Academy.

It’s a routine Roberts started about 10 years ago while serving as city manager of Victorville, Calif. He said the time away allows him to decompress and to avoid having conversations about city business in public.

“I love this city. I love this environment,” Roberts said about Steamboat. “But I have to get some time away from government. I cannot live it seven days a week. I think my downtime on the weekends makes me a more productive employee. I'm more stable. I'm able to focus on my job more during the week.”

Communication

Magill and council member Sonja Macys also questioned Roberts for the role he played in the city's recent push for employee pay raises.

Two weeks after Finance Director Kim Weber and Director of General Services Anne Small presented council with a pay-raise plan they said the city could sustain for at least five years, Roberts — armed with graphs council members didn't see before they tentatively approved the first part of the pay-raise plan — suggested the entire proposal may not be sustainable because the city's sales tax revenue has not shown signs of substantial growth.

Macys charged that Roberts' presentation undermined the work of his own management team. She called his move an "about-face" that could have been avoided with better communication.

“Staff are left hanging in the wind,” she told Roberts on Tuesday. “It's unfortunate, and it's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for our community to see that.”

Roberts said Thursday that he was at odds with his management team before he let them go to bat for the plan. He said he told them he was concerned about the plan's sustainability in an unstable economy.

“I had expressed my doubt to the management team that the City Council would approve the pay plan,” Roberts said. “I thought it was premature to pursue it so aggressively.”

Still, he said that as city manager he doesn't want to always "dictate what viewpoints are presented to council." He added that he shared his graphs with members of his management team before he presented them to City Council in July, even though his presentation ultimately went against the plan proposed by his employees.

At its July 3 meeting, the council decided to table any action on the pay raises until it starts budget discussions this fall. It also reneged on its previous vote to enact the first part of the pay-raise plan, which aims to boost pay for veteran employees whose salaries have been frozen for years.

Macys’ criticism didn't stop at the pay-raise flap.

In one of the most contentious exchanges of Tuesday's performance review, she suggested that Roberts told city employees not to speak to the City Council.

The city manager aggressively denied the charge.

Roberts said Thursday that he never has told an employee that he or she cannot speak to the council. But he acknowledged that in recent meetings with staff he has advised city employees not to go in front of council to “threaten them with a mass exodus” if the pay-raise plan isn’t approved.

He said some employees, especially firefighters, have approached him in recent weeks saying they are concerned by the lack of raises and could find higher-paying jobs in other communities.

Roberts said he recommended to employees that they could talk to council about how difficult it has been to work during the past three years without pay raises.

Roberts faced similar criticism during his tenure in Victorville. The city was taken to court by the Victorville Firefighters Association after Roberts began enforcing a 30-year-old law that prohibited city employees from speaking to council members about employee/employer relations outside of public meetings. The city argued the law was in place to make sure labor bargaining was done in a proper manner. A U.S. District Court judge ultimately ruled that the city’s law was unconstitutional.

Collaboration

Two council members also suggested that Roberts hired new Public Works Director Chuck Anderson without the input of his management team.

Small, who serves as the city's director of human resources, said Thursday that Roberts conducted the hiring properly. She said he narrowed the list of 70 applicants to five finalists and that the management team was able to meet them and provide input. She said Roberts conducted the interviews himself and made the final decision to hire Anderson.

According to Small, Anderson's total compensation package from the city will be about $12,000 less than that of previous Public Works Director Philo Shelton because Anderson, a high-ranking retiring Air Force veteran, will not require health insurance from the city.

Small said that including benefits, former Public Works Director Philo Shelton's annual salary was $136,760, and Anderson's will be $124,700.

Next steps

At Tuesday's review, Roberts received strong support from council President Bart Kounovsky as well as members Cari Hermacinski and Scott Myller.

Without a majority willing to terminate Roberts, the council voted unanimously to instead review his job description and lay out a clear set of expectations for him at its Sept. 4 meeting.

Roberts said Thursday that while the performance review was unpleasant, it did produce at least one positive result.

“I'm going to sit down with the seven of them to work on a plan that all seven of them are in agreement on,” he said. “I think the seven of them need to do more work on coming to a consensus" about what they expect from me.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

Comments

Steve Lewis 2 years, 3 months ago

The pay raise story is not the first of the City Manger’s problems, but it is the one I understand. If correct, the above article captures a serious problem.

Anyone who has served on a board served by staff probably noticed this void back in June, as I did when I posted, "Where is our city manager in this (raise) discussion? This is his job, representing his team's performance and needs."

I stopped there, thinking maybe Roberts' own input in the first employee raise hearing simply never made it into the article. But today I read he actually withheld his information from City Council. For the life of me, I cannot understand Roberts watching Councilors vote knowing important information was missing.

It is commendable to encourage other points of view. But it is a cardinal wrong for a City Manager to withhold information pivotal to a Council vote. The subsequent reversal at a later hearing bruised not only Roberts relationship with Council, but with his own staff.

Magill is right to take the steps he has. And I agree with Kaminski’s successful motion for further deliberation. But the real issue is not that Council needs better consensus on directing Roberts. The real issue is what level of trust does Roberts still have with Council members, and is he still considered an effective leader of City staff.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Steve, Well, there is obvious conflict when HR director and Director of General Services continues to push for a plan without the clear support of the City Manager. It appears that both knew of his concerns and decided to withhold those concerns from the city council in their presentation. Seems to me that City Council should be upset with all three since the net result was that staff made a presentation withholding key information that was only corrected in a later separate presentation by the City Manager.

I had an interesting wide ranging conversation with a city employee today. It seems plausible that a huge part of the city's pay scale problem is that the boom during 2006-2008 caused the City to hire some that were overpaid and under skilled. And so a problem that in private industry that would be fixed by getting rid of those individuals is addressed by government by trying to give raises to everyone else.

I worked for 20 years in a tech company that had layoffs every couple of years regardless if only to get clear out staff not worth their pay and to reduce staffing where no longer as needed. No one was ever called back. Unwritten rule of those layoffs is that being laid off is a nicer way of firing some people so if anyone laid off thought the old job was being advertised and wanted to make an issue of it then there could be a rehire and then a firing for low performance. Rarely, a group would lay off someone thought highly by others and the person would be rehired.

The worst way to control costs is via general pay freezes because then the highly skilled doing the best jobs are denied raises while the mediocre not deserving of raises are denied nothing.

SB should do a reduction in force (RIF) which would, by definition, clear out disparities of pay for similarly skilled employees and then give raises to those that would be hard to replace at their current pay.

But the trouble with government is that employees tend to be single issue voters and so business sense loses to popularity. And so government finds it so hard to get rid off weaker employees.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

I was tempted to wax philosophical here, drawing parallels between this and my most direct government experience, the military -- and here I must agree with Scott, it's hard to dismiss tenured employees, multiplied to the Nth degree there, as vote plays no role, just maintain your pro's and con's (ratings) don't offend anybody, get your time in grade, talk the line, shine your brass, and you are assured of advancement, possibly to the dismay of your more-competent contemporaries...

Then I noticed the compensation levels of mid-level management hereabouts.

RIF. Fire 'em all.

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John Weibel 2 years, 3 months ago

The issue in victorville was about having the employees of the city not go to city council for wages. I see that as the law that was on the books was to stop the tail from wagging the dog.

As I have no idea of the whole story here, but I would have to point out Steve, that if the presenters of the raise asked to have the issue put on the schedule without Roberts knowledge or knowing he would be out of town then the issue is with them not Roberts, imo.. You can't have your underlings undermining your position and hope to lead.

From my perspective, Roberts is standing up for the citizens of the community and not pushing for raises he sees as unsustainable. Maybe, the community needs to reassess what is really needed here. What can be outsourced as many times you think that you can do a job for less than others, it can be shown that it is at the outset, but long term that job is preformed by one who does not care how long it takes. Thus it is better to keep a job outsourced in the long term as the management, HR and mobilization costs end up making that job far more costly to preform in house than if it were done by bid submissions.

Putting up the banners on lincoln might be an example. How much time does it take for the people, truck and management of them to preform the weekly operation. Would that job be more efficiently by others. What about maintaining the parks, plowing, maintaining of vehicles. On maintaining of vehicles, the hourly rate is sure a lot less, but then throw in pension, benefits, HR, and all the other costs.

I think the community in Georgia, might be a model to slowly work towards. yes that puts government people out of work but those who replace them might just do the job, quicker and more effectively as they may have a vested interest in getting the job done better.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 3 months ago

I was not an advocate for the pay raise. And agreed the "other cities" data was not a valid argument. So my contention is not at all the end result. My contention is the story how of Roberts performed getting there.

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John Weibel 2 years, 3 months ago

It is hard to preform well when others want to take an end around to accomplish something you are against. If that is what happened

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

I'll bet we could cut every city employee's salary in half, and still find qualified, enthusiastic applicants to fill the positions.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Rhys, I'll take that bet. Bus drivers, city snowplow drivers and the mechanics are most certainly not making twice what they'd make in the private sector. Trying to fill those jobs at half of current pay would not find qualified applicants. The diesel mechanics and heavy equipment drivers could easily find local jobs for much more than half of their current pay. And no one qualified or enthusiastic would fill those jobs at half of current pay.

It might be possible to replace the city dept managers and the city manager with good people willing to make half of the current management staff.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 3 months ago

Ease up Rhys. You do want smart people attracted to government and you do want to keep them motivated. Otherwise you will always be disappointed with government, because only the worst minds are there to serve you. It also makes sense that the best staff is the one that admires and respects their superiors.

I think the folks in our city and county government are getting pinched in this recession too. We all know government is shrinking at the state and local levels across the country. (The feds weren't shrinking last I checked, but were level. That may have changed as the last job numbers were said to be dragged down by public sector job losses.) It makes sense pensions will never be what they used to be in the public sector, particularly for junior staff.

Sure government does have its challenges eliminating inefficient employees, but I'm impressed by the work I've observed recently. Such as at the County planning staff this past few months working on oil and gas. The City had some great staff as well during my stint on planning commission.

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Bret Marx 2 years, 3 months ago

I can't believe i'm saying this but I totally agree with Scott W.'s last comment. He hit the nail on the head. Let's not forget the firefighters,police officers, water dept. workers either. Lewi is correct too as for hiring and attracting smart people to government jobs. The smart ones who know they are worth more and are looking to excel in there careers will leave the city jobs behind if they keep getting denied raises and recognition. You hire for low pay, you might get less than desireable applicants and a weak worth ethic then you'll be even more upset with YOUR government.

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Steve Lewis 2 years, 3 months ago

Scott, You are right, the concerns should have been presented earlier, and Roberts wasn't the only one aware of them. The thing is, these were Roberts concerns. He is also the only one of the 3 with constant access to council's discussion. That is why he sits with council at the big table.

Not sure what you meant in that last paragraph - employees tend to be single issue voters...

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Bret Marx 2 years, 3 months ago

Rhys, you think you could find firefighters to work for $6.00 per hour? Unemployment is high for sure and you must be too.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Bret, As I have mentioned many times, there has been no evidence presented to support the following claims: 1) No evidence that more Steamboat government employees are leaving than normal. 2) No evidence that Steamboat is having trouble finding highly qualified replacements.

The limited evidence available suggests that fewer employees are leaving than during the boom years and that new hires are better qualified than during the boom years.

I believe it is likely that there are some city jobs, possibly the firefighters, that may be better paid elsewhere and so this across the board pay freeze policy should be ended. But there are other job categories such as city administrative staff which could probably have 10-25% pay cuts with those employees still not able to find better paying jobs and open positions could be filled by better educated and better motivated college grads in those fields otherwise unable to find work. And there appears to be way more managers and layers of management in city government compared to the private sector. So an across the board pay raise is not needed and especially not one that breaks the budget in a few years.

Steve, My comment about voting is that many city employees vote in city elections and so can influence the decision as to whom sets their pay scales. That is likely to be the issue most important to city employees and so they can be considered single issue voters. Ie. a candidate advocating layoffs would likely lose the vote of every city employee.

I wasn't trying to absolve Roberts of blame. I was pointing out that there are others that also bear responsibility for failing to communicate even as some on the City Council are blaming Roberts for all of it.

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