Steamboat City Council, city manager still have issues to work out
2 days after contentious review, Jon Roberts says he is waiting for clear direction from City Council
August 9, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Jon Roberts still is digesting the contentious performance review he endured earlier this week.
At times, the Steamboat Springs city manager’s review was unpleasant and heated. Council members were candid with their criticism of the city's top employee, and Roberts didn't hesitate to fire back at times.
"I certainly cannot claim I enjoyed Tuesday night," Roberts said in his office Thursday.
But Roberts, in his fourth year as the city manager, survived the effort by some members of the Steamboat Springs City Council to fire him Tuesday.
After the review, Roberts said he went home to tell his wife he still had a job. But he also went home knowing that at least three of his bosses have serious doubts about his leadership, the way he communicates with council members and city employees and his connection to the community.
Tuesday’s performance review started with council member Walter Magill’s call to fire Roberts. Among Magill's criticisms of Roberts was that he isn't more involved in the community. Fellow council member Kenny Reisman shared that concern.
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Magill also criticized the city manager for taking frequent vacations outside the community.
On Thursday, Roberts defended his level of community involvement. He said he is an active Rotarian and participated in the campaign to secure a new ski jump on Howelsen Hill.
But he also said he has no plans to "live the life of a city manager" seven days a week. As such, Roberts will continue to leave Steamboat Springs almost every weekend to camp and fish, to visit his daughter in Denver and to spend time in Colorado Springs, where he and his wife sponsor cadets at the Air Force Academy.
It's a routine Roberts started about 10 years ago while serving as city manager of Victorville, Calif. He said the time away allows him to decompress and to avoid having conversations about city business in public.
"I love this city. I love this environment," Roberts said about Steamboat. "But I have to get some time away from government. I cannot live it seven days a week. I think my downtime on the weekends makes me a more productive employee. I’m more stable. I’m able to focus on my job more during the week."
Magill and council member Sonja Macys also questioned Roberts for the role he played in the city’s recent push for employee pay raises.
Two weeks after Finance Director Kim Weber and Director of General Services Anne Small presented council with a pay-raise plan they said the city could sustain for at least five years, Roberts — armed with graphs council members didn’t see before they tentatively approved the first part of the pay-raise plan — suggested the entire proposal may not be sustainable because the city’s sales tax revenue has not shown signs of substantial growth.
Macys charged that Roberts’ presentation undermined the work of his own management team. She called his move an “about-face” that could have been avoided with better communication.
"Staff are left hanging in the wind," she told Roberts on Tuesday. "It’s unfortunate, and it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for our community to see that."
Roberts said Thursday that he was at odds with his management team before he let them go to bat for the plan. He said he told them he was concerned about the plan’s sustainability in an unstable economy.
"I had expressed my doubt to the management team that the City Council would approve the pay plan," Roberts said. "I thought it was premature to pursue it so aggressively."
Still, he said that as city manager he doesn’t want to always “dictate what viewpoints are presented to council.” He added that he shared his graphs with members of his management team before he presented them to City Council in July, even though his presentation ultimately went against the plan proposed by his employees.
At its July 3 meeting, the council decided to table any action on the pay raises until it starts budget discussions this fall. It also reneged on its previous vote to enact the first part of the pay-raise plan, which aims to boost pay for veteran employees whose salaries have been frozen for years.
Macys' criticism didn’t stop at the pay-raise flap.
In one of the most contentious exchanges of Tuesday’s performance review, she suggested that Roberts told city employees not to speak to the City Council.
The city manager aggressively denied the charge.
Roberts said Thursday that he never has told an employee that he or she cannot speak to the council. But he acknowledged that in recent meetings with staff he has advised city employees not to go in front of council to "threaten them with a mass exodus" if the pay-raise plan isn't approved.
He said some employees, especially firefighters, have approached him in recent weeks saying they are concerned by the lack of raises and could find higher-paying jobs in other communities.
Roberts said he recommended to employees that they could talk to council about how difficult it has been to work during the past three years without pay raises.
Roberts faced similar criticism during his tenure in Victorville. The city was taken to court by the Victorville Firefighters Association after Roberts began enforcing a 30-year-old law that prohibited city employees from speaking to council members about employee/employer relations outside of public meetings. The city argued the law was in place to make sure labor bargaining was done in a proper manner. A U.S. District Court judge ultimately ruled that the city's law was unconstitutional.
Two council members also suggested that Roberts hired new Public Works Director Chuck Anderson without the input of his management team.
Small, who serves as the city’s director of human resources, said Thursday that Roberts conducted the hiring properly. She said he narrowed the list of 70 applicants to five finalists and that the management team was able to meet them and provide input. She said Roberts conducted the interviews himself and made the final decision to hire Anderson.
According to Small, Anderson’s total compensation package from the city will be about $12,000 less than that of previous Public Works Director Philo Shelton because Anderson, a high-ranking retiring Air Force veteran, will not require health insurance from the city.
Small said that including benefits, former Public Works Director Philo Shelton’s annual salary was $136,760, and Anderson’s will be $124,700.
At Tuesday’s review, Roberts received strong support from council President Bart Kounovsky as well as members Cari Hermacinski and Scott Myller.
Without a majority willing to terminate Roberts, the council voted unanimously to instead review his job description and lay out a clear set of expectations for him at its Sept. 4 meeting.
Roberts said Thursday that while the performance review was unpleasant, it did produce at least one positive result.
"I’m going to sit down with the seven of them to work on a plan that all seven of them are in agreement on," he said. "I think the seven of them need to do more work on coming to a consensus” about what they expect from me.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com