Rob Douglas: Roberts needed to go

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Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Douglas here.

This week, a months-long desire by a growing majority of the Steamboat Springs City Council to fire City Manager Jon Roberts culminated with Roberts resigning instead of being terminated. Given the turbulence associated with the job of city manager in recent years, there is consternation in Steamboat with the departure of Roberts. Truth be told, it was time for Roberts to go.

In Steamboat, city managers are an endangered species from the moment the ink dries on their employment contracts. Under the council/manager form of government, the city manager serves at the pleasure of the council. Once hired by the council, city managers realize their tenures will be short if they don’t perform to the satisfaction of succeeding councils.

Further, the city manager is hired under a set of subjective performance criteria shaped by the circumstances and priorities of the moment, only to have those criteria shift as circumstances and priorities change throughout time. This certainly was true in Roberts’ case.

Roberts was hired in 2009 by a council that wanted a manager with experience overseeing major development projects because, at the time, it appeared Steamboat 700 would move forward. In fact, when Roberts was publicly interviewed, he stated that his forte was major projects like Steamboat 700, not the traditional day-to-day work of a rural city manager. With the rejection of the annexation of Steamboat 700 at the ballot box, a major portion of the rationale behind Roberts’ hiring went out the window.

Roberts’ job shifted in other ways because of the Great Recession. As city revenue dropped, Roberts had to downsize the government with as little impact as possible on day-to-day operations — a job that Roberts managed admirably.

While the defeat of Steamboat 700 and the recession led to tangible changes in the challenges Roberts confronted as city manager, there also were two near-death experiences that may have had an intangible, yet understandable, impact on how Roberts approached his job.

In 2009, Roberts’ main parachute failed to open while he was skydiving in California during Memorial Day weekend. After his reserve chute deployed, it snagged a TV antennae on top of a 30-foot building. Roberts then fell to the ground, suffering trauma to his thoracic aorta. In spite of his injuries, Roberts was back on the job in less than a month.

On Jan. 2, 2011, Roberts was injured while skiing alone at Steamboat Ski Area. Roberts was found unconscious and was flown to Denver, where he remained unconscious for eight days, suffering from severe brain trauma, a broken facial bone, broken ribs and a separated shoulder. Due in large part to his determination and grit, Roberts returned to work five months later, and the rehabilitation from his injuries has been nothing short of miraculous.

Given those experiences, it would be perfectly understandable if Roberts approached his job from a different perspective — perhaps without the same zeal he previously had exhibited. If so, it would explain why Roberts didn’t seem as engaged as he once had been. And it was that lack of engagement that lay at the heart of the council’s discontent with him.

On a personal note, as regular readers of this column may recall, I opposed the hiring of Roberts in January 2009. Because of questions I had regarding unresolved controversies at his previous post in Victorville, Calif., I thought the council had not done enough due diligence before hiring Roberts. Beyond those questions, I didn’t think Roberts was a good fit for Steamboat given his employment background and the structural differences between Victorville and Steamboat. Once hired, I found it impossible not to like Jon and his wife, LeAnn.

At the end of the day, what seemed like the perfect hire to the City Council of 2009 became untenable to the City Council of 2012 and, perhaps, to Roberts himself. No one made a grave error. No one acted with malice. Circumstances just changed.

To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.

Comments

Robert Dippold 1 year, 10 months ago

Rob,

Your headline states that Mr. Roberts needed to go, but it did not state why. I am assuming that it was because the council wants more community involvement from the City Manager and Mr. Roberts was not that person. It appears that in the traditional role of City Manager that Mr. Roberts excelled. It is a national trend for cities to want the City Manager to take on the public relations role of a Mayor. This trend is also being met with a lot of failure because the job description is so broad and consuming that there are not enough qualified people that can do the job or want the pace of the job for a prolonged period of time. If this is the case, then is it logical to think that Steamboat, as great of a place as it is, can attract and retain the top tier talent ? I am concerned in business or politics of having a system that is overly dependent upon the retention of a key employee. Before we go down the path of hiring another City Manager, I wonder if it doesn't make more sense to ask ourselves if the Council-City Manager system is the right system for Steamboat. How would a city go about investigating a change in their governing system?

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Paul Hughes 1 year, 10 months ago

The International City-County Manager Association (ICMA) and the National League of Cities (NLC) both can provide reams of information about the Council-Manager system and other systems such as strong mayor, weak mayor, etc. Naturally, my preference is the Council-Manager system that Steamboat embraced in the 1970's. The Council-Manager system is the most widely used local government system in the United States. It originated in the 1920's as a reaction against widespread corruption, nepotism, cronyism and other hurtful "isms." It combines volunteer politicians (elected officials) with a professional, non-political manager whose job is to carry out the elected officials' vision (if they have one) and, at the same time, supervise the essential day-to-day operations of the city. It's a fine system, and it shouldn't be thrown out just because some elected officials weren't smart enough to use it properly.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 10 months ago

A mayor system cannot assume the mayor is good and flawless. Therefore, it require the other elected officials are not dependent upon the mayor and mayor's staff for advice or research. Thus, it requires that city council members have their independent staff.

So the mayor system works when the government is large enough that having an independent city council staff is not a significant budget concern. That is not true in Steamboat.

The typical issue in SB's government is that the majority on the City Council want the city manager to be an advocate for their ideas and not a professional administrator that works with everyone. So a city manager gets hired by one city council and then has issues with the next city council.

Though, in this case, it is easier to see examples of actual poor performance. John Roberts allowed such poorly researched packets created by staff to reach the city council that it is fair to say he was doing a poor job. Staff reports on police/fire station and Iron Horse were far from objective and made claims not supported by facts or research. It is a failure of management to allow selling the current building without having determined even the location of replacement buildings. It was extremely premature to be talking with Big Agnes about the building. Until the site is know then the costs of construction are not known. So City doesn't even know if it has the money to replace the building it sold.

Sure, it is also a failure of City Council, but the professional manager did not seriously object.

And the pay raise fiasco was another case of allowing staff to present a poorly researched report. How his objections weren't in the initial report, but were presented separately suggest he was not even able to communicate with staff.

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steve gadbois 1 year, 10 months ago

What a pleasant change to read a chain of seemingly informed, polite, unemotional and articulately stated opinions on a subject that is important to everyone in Steamboat Springs. Thank you gentlemen!

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