Our View: City Council right to hit the pause button on city manager search

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Editorial Board, August through January 2012

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Shannon Lukens, community representative
  • Scott Ford, community representative

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It’s relatively familiar territory for Steamboat Springs city councils of the past decade: a vacancy that needs to be filled at the top of the city’s organizational chart. This City Council has a couple of choices, of which the most common of late is to fork over big bucks for an executive search firm to drum up some candidates from across the country, many of them with attractive resumes, but few — if any — of them likely to last more than a couple of years here in the Yampa Valley.

Perhaps it’s time for a council to break from the mold and try an approach that could possibly result in a better, lasting fit for Steamboat Springs’ city manager position.

We support the City Council’s decision last week to postpone the search process until its members hammer out the specific expectations they will have of the next city manager. The need to clearly define those expectations — as well as how to best evaluate the next city manager’s job in meeting those criteria — has been a task looming for this council since its impromptu review of then-City Manager Jon Roberts in August.

Instead of firing Roberts at that August meeting, council members agreed to discuss his job description and to lay out a clear set of goals for him. They drafted a set of goals and expectations for Roberts in September, but he resigned a month later. Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark since has taken on the interim role, and the council last week rewarded her for it with an additional $1,000 per month in base salary.

While Hinsvark has made it clear that she would like to change her status from interim to permanent, the city has sought proposals from executive search firms that would like to lead the city manager hiring process. The four finalists have proposed search processes that range in cost from $13,500 to $19,100. Travel and related expenses are likely to drive up the cost of most of those bids.

Forgive us for being a bit cynical about the effectiveness of spending $20,000 or more to have an outside search firm help find Steamboat’s next city manager. Recent history has done little to suggest that such an expense results in the hiring of an ideal executive who goes on to enjoy long-term success here. Specifically, we wonder whether the outward focus of executive search firms places too much emphasis on out-of-town candidates who don’t have the knowledge of or experience in our community that can be so essential to finding the right and lasting fit.

So not only do we support the council putting the brakes on the search process, we also urge them to think carefully about the value of hiring an expensive search firm to post a job and cull through the resulting applications. This interim period also will give the council ample opportunity to evaluate Hinsvark and whether she is the right fit for Steamboat Springs.

At the end of the day, the city needs a strong, capable and committed leader who will be the face of Steamboat city government. There’s no need to rush that decision.

Comments

Steve Lewis 1 year, 10 months ago

The pause in hiring a new City Manager makes sense. The extra deliberation will pay off.

But the use of executive search firms is NOT the reason our last two City Managers did not work out. The last two did not work out because we hired the wrong managers.

$20,000 is not too much to spend for assistance hiring a manager. Consider the current manager is determined to push through a $1-2 million subsidy to Big Agnes. And to build a new $10 million public safety campus as our economy is uncertain. $20,000 is nothing in the scale of the manager's impacts. Spend whatever it takes to get Steamboat the right manager!

I've attended a lot of Council meetings over the past decade. In my opinion the last 2 managers ended poorly because their hiring councils allowed, or even sought, ideology in their managers. Lanning pursued a very liberal agenda that suited his initial bosses, and when the pendulum brought a more conservative council, he was a poor fit. Roberts pursued a very conservative agenda that suited his initial bosses, and when the pendulum brought council closer to the center, he was a poor fit.

Any manager should do the bidding of the council, but he or she should also challenge that council by also representing the best, and expressed, interests of the citizens. (This may not be appropriate in the context of council hearings, but is certainly valid in work sessions and setting agendas.) The last two managers seemed to challenge the citizens while pursuing the interests of a council. The interests of the citizens is the right compass for a steady manager, and for a steady course forward.

Paul Hughes and Wendy Dubord (deputy manager) lasted through all manner of council's and brought Steamboat into the top tier of places to live. I suggest we include Paul and Wendy's ideas in our next steps toward choosing a manager.

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