Steamboat City Manager Jon Roberts resigns
October 16, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Moments after he tendered his resignation to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday night, City Manager Jon Roberts recalled nearly four years’ worth of challenges.
The economy never rebounded at the rate he thought it would when he moved here in 2009 from Victorville, Calif.
Budgets had to be cut year after year.
He didn’t even mention his harrowing ski and skydiving accidents.
Then, as City Council members headed home, the outgoing city manager pulled out a list of his accomplishments from a briefcase.
The two-page list led off with "cut total expenditures by over 40 percent without significantly reducing service levels" and ended with "initiated and negotiated a business retention/economic development proposal with Big Agnes, Honey Stinger group.”
"I would put this in the category of a gut check," Roberts said when asked what spurred him to resign. "There aren’t any specifics I would point to. I think it’s just in the best interest for me and my family to move on to other endeavors."
With his wife, LeAnn, at his side, Roberts said they plan to move back to their home just north of Colorado Springs, where they sponsor Air Force Academy cadets. After that, his future isn’t yet clear.
Roberts’ tenure as city manager was thrown into question in August when he received a bruising performance review from the City Council. The review started with council member Walter Magill’s call to fire Roberts.
"I'd say we have leadership issues. We have communication issues. We have collaboration issues," Magill said about Roberts during that August meeting.
Three other council members also criticized Roberts' management style, level of communication with the council and city staff and involvement in the community.
But during the course of the 40-minute public evaluation it became clear there weren't enough votes to fire Roberts. Three City Council members — President Bart Kounovsky, Scott Myller and Cari Hermacinski — came to Roberts’ defense and said the city manager has done a commendable job of steering the city through challenging economic times.
At the end of the review, council members voted unanimously to discuss his job description and lay out a clear set of goals for him.
Roberts said Tuesday night that the review caused him to “reflect on my personal and professional life.” He ultimately decided the resignation was the best option for him and his family.
City Council unanimously approved a severance package that includes six months’ worth of pay based on Roberts’ $153,000 salary, and it praised him for tackling all the challenges.
Council members then appointed Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark as interim city manager. Roberts’ resignation is effective at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Ups, downs define Roberts' tenure
Roberts stepped into a rough economic climate when he started with the city in February 2009. Sales tax revenue was dropping month after month, and the city was preparing to slash its budget by $2.5 million.
Council members who were supportive of Roberts during his August review were quick to point out that he found ways for the city to maintain service levels while simultaneously tightening its belt.
In his second month on the job, Roberts proposed a furlough program that required city employees to reduce their hours and pay by 10 percent. Police patrol officers, firefighters, paramedics, transit drivers and dispatchers and part-time employees were exempt from the furloughs that were projected to save nearly $900,000 when they were adopted by the City Council.
More recently, Roberts turned his focus to keeping some of Steamboat’s most lucrative businesses from taking their growth elsewhere, and keeping water running through town during extreme drought conditions.
Last month, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger owner Bill Gamber said it was Roberts who approached him with a proposal to have the Steamboat-based outdoor retail companies move into the city’s emergency services building on Yampa Street and help kickstart a revitalization effort there.
"He came to us and asked, ‘How can the city economically support your growing business?’" Gamber said.
Gamber said companies like his face tremendous pressure to move out of Steamboat. He even hinted that without the Yampa Street building, his companies' growth in the Yampa Valley was uncertain.
Council members on Tuesday voted to move forward in negotiating a sales contract with Big Agnes and Honey Stinger for that Yampa Street building.
Roberts also has been praised for his role in negotiating an extended lease contract at Steamboat Springs Airport with SmartWool and for his role this summer in securing unprecedented releases of water from area reservoirs to sustain flows in the Yampa River.
Among the ammunition for his critics was his handling of a recent push for pay raises for city employees. Two weeks after city management presented council with a pay-raise plan that Finance Director Kim Weber said the city could sustain for at least five years, Roberts — 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.
Council member Sonja 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 during the August performance review. "It’s unfortunate and it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for our community to see that."
Roberts defended his handling of the pay-raise push.
He said he disagreed with his management team on the issue but that he didn’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 the council.
Difference of opinion
Two days after his August performance evaluation, Roberts said he didn’t agree with much of the council’s criticism, especially Magill’s concern he was taking too many trips to Colorado Springs and Denver on weekends.
"I love this city. I love this environment," Roberts said. "But I have to get some time away from government. I cannot live it seven days a week. I think my down time 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."
Like many other city employees, Roberts works four days each week, and his base salary was reduced by 10 percent in 2009 as a result of the furloughs.
He said he would 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. He said he started the routine about 10 years ago while serving as city manager of Victorville. He said the time away allows him to decompress and to avoid having conversations about city business in public.
But he also acknowledged that criticism "comes with the territory." And before he reflected on his tenuous relationship with the City Council, he briefly talked about one of the more harrowing things he had survived during his tenure as city manager — the ski accident that left him unconscious for eight days.
Roberts said last month that he remembers little of the accident other than the slopes were foggy that day. He was found unconscious below the Sitz ski trail after the Jan. 2, 2011, crash. The result was a traumatic brain injury, three broken ribs and a broken bone below his left eye.
Roberts was released from the hospital after more than two months of rehabilitation. He returned to work shortly after with a warm reception from city staff.
The ski accident was the city manager’s second brush with death in his tenure here.
In May 2009, Roberts’ parachute failed during a skydive in Perris, Calif. The experienced skydiver fell 30 feet to the ground and tore his thoratic aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel.
"It was kind of like just having the wind knocked out of you. I had no idea I had been injured until I woke up” after surgery, Roberts told the Steamboat Today a few weeks after that accident. "I am so obviously grateful to have come through that ordeal in pretty good shape."
Roberts recovered and returned to City Hall less than a month after the accident.
On Tuesday night, council members praised Roberts’ tenure. Together, they released a statement outlining his accomplishments in the face of dire economic conditions and thanking him for his service.
"I think he did an outstanding job in some very, very trying times," Kounovsky said after the meeting. "I think Jon just reflected on where he was at, and made a choice it was time. He had some very major accomplishments. And he decided it was time to move on. I’m sad that he’s leaving."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com