Our View: Roberts’ departure offers lesson for future
October 23, 2012
It came as little surprise that the alarm clock ticking on Jon Roberts' future as Steamboat Springs city manager finally sounded last week. In the end, Roberts' resignation to a Steamboat Springs City Council that increasingly had grown wary of his ability to fulfill its expectations of him was the right decision for both sides.
While Roberts might not have been the best fit for present-day Steamboat and its current council, let's not lose sight of his accomplishments. At the top of that list is Roberts' leadership of the city through arguably the most trying economic years of the past three decades. With Roberts at the helm, the city slashed its budget without sacrificing essential services. The conservative budgeting preached by the city councils of those years and executed by Roberts and his department heads also led to an increase in the city's discretionary reserves.
Roberts, who was hired largely on the strength of his experience with economic development, also helped push the city toward new programs like micro-grants for small businesses and economic incentives for growing businesses. He was instrumental in negotiating a long-term lease with SmartWool and the associated renovations at Steamboat Springs Airport. And it was Roberts who approached Big Agnes and Honey Stinger about a deal in which the growing Steamboat-based company would purchase the city-owned property at 840 Yampa St. The council voted last week to give city officials the go-ahead to negotiate the specific terms of that sale.
Roberts had his weaknesses, too, and they were his undoing. The council's public review of Roberts' job performance in August revealed deep frustrations regarding his leadership style, specifically the lack of communication between him and the council and between him and his staff. Some council members also questioned Roberts' commitment to the community, as evidenced by his leaving town most weekends to return to Colorado Springs, where he and his wife own a home and are heavily involved with the Air Force Academy. City employee morale has suffered tremendously throughout the past four years, no doubt much of it resulting from forced furloughs and pay freezes.
Although he avoided being fired during that August meeting, the writing was on the wall. His time as city manager was coming to an end, and resolution was better sooner than later.
Now, Steamboat takes the familiar step of beginning a search for a departed city manager's permanent replacement. Deb Hinsvark has been named interim city manager and likely will be a candidate for the full-time gig. Although the City Council has not discussed its specific plans for the hiring process, past history can provide some guidance.
Executive search firms cost a pretty penny and don't always live up to the billing. Recall that the council that hired Roberts expressed frustration at Peckham & McKenney's failure to uncover information about the lawsuits facing the city of Victorville, Calif., while under Roberts' leadership. The council also should be reminded that strong-willed managers who might fit that council's specific agenda aren't likely to last long, particularly given turnover on council and the yo-yo nature of Steamboat politics.
Hire a professional with good experience, familiarity with the unique nature of a mountain resort community and the flexibility to adapt to different councils and the political will of the day. City managers aren't supposed to last forever, but they ought to be capable of surviving a couple of changes in City Council makeup. Roberts couldn't, and that ultimately was the right decision for him and Steamboat.