Rob Douglas: Who’s driving city policy?
February 20, 2014
The Aug. 10, 2012, edition of this column was headlined, "Will Roberts rise to Magill's challenge?" The column examined complaints about then-Steamboat Springs City Manager Jon Roberts primarily raised by three members of the Steamboat Springs City Council — Walter Magill, Kenny Reisman and Sonja Macys — during that week's City Council meeting.
Led by Magill, the three wanted Roberts fired. After cooler heads prevailed, Roberts was granted a reprieve while simultaneously being informed by a number of council members about what they perceived as his deficiencies as city manager.
At the top of the list of complaints from Magill, and shared by several other council members, was the failure on the part of Roberts to keep the full City Council informed on issues involving public policy and the operation of the city.
At the time, the Steamboat Today reported Magill's concerns in "Steamboat City Manager Jon Roberts' job safe, for now."
"Magill began the discussion by questioning Roberts' communication with the council, the community and city staff.
"'I'd say we have leadership issues. We have communication issues. We have collaboration issues,' Magill said.
"Magill further criticized Roberts for taking frequent vacations and not sending council members enough emails about city issues, including the recent hiring of a public works director."
Two months later, realizing he'd lost the support of a majority of the council, Roberts resigned. Roberts' departure — he's now the deputy city manager for public works and utilities in Galveston, Texas — led to the appointment of Steamboat Springs' current city manager, Deb Hinsvark.
Unfortunately, with Hinsvark now fully ensconced, the lack of communication between the city manager and the full council again has become a problem.
While a number of Roberts' purported weaknesses are absent with Hinsvark, Hinsvark has adopted a managerial style that deliberately keeps a majority of the City Council uninformed about potential changes in public policy even as Hinsvark is discussing and negotiating those changes with others in the community.
While Hinsvark meets weekly with City Council President Bart Kounovsky, a majority of the council is seemingly the last to know about matters of public import undertaken by Hinsvark and her management team. Therefore, at times council members are unable to answer constituent questions about actions undertaken by the management team.
When quizzed about policy changes Hinsvark is discussing or advocating with individuals and organizations across the city without first obtaining direction from a majority of the council to explore the change, some council members state with frustration, "I don't know anything other than what I've read about it in the paper."
On a range of policies that could significantly impact residents of Steamboat — including potential locations for a new police station, the creation of a parks and recreation tax district and the possible installation of parking meters — Hinsvark has moved forward while a majority of the council remained in the dark.
In the latest example, since last fall Hinsvark has been discussing with Yampa Valley Medical Center the possibility of the hospital and the city partnering to build a new police station and health center at the corner of Pine Grove Road and Central Park Drive.
Bizarrely, while hospital CEO Frank May was discussing the potential partnership with his board of directors — a partnership that would entail the city swapping property it recently obtained through foreclosure with the hospital — Hinsvark didn't notify the majority of the City Council about her discussions until the day she thought the hospital was going to issue a press release.
So the question is, why has Hinsvark been given a pass for not "communicating" and "collaborating" with the full council when that criticism topped the list of complaints leveled at Roberts?
The simple answer is that a bare majority of the council has been content to allow Hinsvark, with the collaboration of Kounovsky, to drive public policy while most of the council remains out of the loop for far too long.
That cart before the horse style of governing is precisely why the process undertaken to build a new police station — a process Hinsvark has called "absolutely perfect" — has, in reality, been riddled with blunders.
And, it is a wrongheaded style of governing that is depriving the residents of Steamboat of meaningful and timely representation from all seven elected representatives on the council.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com