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