Aspen’s city manager faces challenges with staff turnover amid a pandemic and a changing culture in City Hall

Sara Ott talks about first year on the job, not being 'status quo' leader

Sara Ott has had a tumultuous first year as Aspen’s city manager — dealing with high department head turnover, a changing landscape in the organization’s culture and the local government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since Ott became interim city manager in February 2019 and got the permanent job in September of that year, at least 10 department heads have left their posts, along with some key employees across the roughly 25 departments in City Hall.

The turnover has brought an additional burden onto Ott, who has had to rebuild the city manager’s office, as she was the last one standing when the three-person department was decimated by forced resignations.

As the assistant city manager for two years coming from Ohio in 2017, Ott was named interim city manager after her boss, Steve Barwick, and her colleague, former assistant City Manager Barry Crook, left the office.

While trying to hold down the fort amid political upheaval in City Hall, as well as manage the city’s day-to-day operations, the municipality’s 300-plus employees and take direction from a newly elected City Council with differing agendas, Ott was competing for the permanent job against two other candidates.

And just when she was getting her legs under her and honing in on council’s collective goals and priorities, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Aspen in March.

While recruiting employees during a pandemic has its own challenges, the tight housing market and the cost of living here make hiring even more difficult.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue that has major implications for recruiting,” she told The Aspen Times on Sept. 1, which was her one-year anniversary as permanent city manager.

Ott, who makes $203,000 a year plus benefits, will have her first yearly evaluation and review by City Council in the coming weeks.

Taking stock of the turnover

There are two key positions that the city will hire a recruiting firm for in the coming months — the executive director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) and the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House.

Those department heads, who each had been in their positions for five years, left after clashes they had with Ott over pay, policy and management style, among other reasons.

A more high-profile departure occurred in August with the forced resignation of Mike Kosdrosky, former executive director of APCHA.

He received a $43,000 severance package after signing an agreement to not disparage the city, or have any contact with the media or other government employees.

Gena Buhler, former executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, signed a similar agreement this past spring after she resigned but was asked to leave earlier than her planned departure date.

Two months after Ott took the job permanently, City Clerk Linda Manning resigned, saying at the time she wasn’t happy in her job and didn’t agree with the organization’s values.

Manning said this week that Ott was part of the reason she left.

The most recent resignation, Hans de Roos, capital asset director, occurred earlier this month after being on the job for just four months.

There are currently five department head positions open, with some hires being frozen for budgetary reasons due to COVID-19.

A new human resources director started earlier this month, and a director of communications is close to being hired, said Alissa Farrell, the city’s administrative services director.

Farrell is the city’s former human resources director who was promoted this year to a newly created position by Ott. Tracy Trulove, who filled another new position created by Ott as the director of communications, quit in June after a year on the job.

Trulove, who now works as a public information officer for Pitkin County, said at the time she didn’t realize how political the city job was going to be.

Ott said there are a variety of reasons why people left the organization in the past year.

“A lot of retirements, promotions and the people who don’t like me left,” she said.

Former and current employees have criticized Ott’s management style, describing it as “her way or the highway,” non-communicative, micromanaging or controlling.

The result for some employees has been a toxic work environment and a culture of fear.

More than two dozen employees spoke to The Times either on the record or on the condition of anonymity, regarding Ott and the culture of the work environment within the city.

“There was uncertainty with people protecting themselves at the expense of others because of control from the top down and it segregated us at the lower level,” said one former employee. “There was a lot of distrust between the departments for fear of losing control.”

Other employees say the control and micromanaging are being harnessed in the human resources department, and personnel matters within the organization go unanswered or are ignored in some circumstances and in other cases, they are bogged down in undue process.

Sarah Sanders, former community events and sponsorship manager at the Wheeler, said she left the city for another opportunity last month because of how she was treated when she was reassigned to the parks department to work at the golf course cleaning locker rooms, golf carts and planting flowers around town as the opera house was shuttered in March due to the pandemic.

She said she expressed to human resources and to Ott that she didn’t feel comfortable from a health standpoint doing that type of work with a compromised immune system.

Even though there was work to do in her hired role, she was told that it wasn’t a priority and that parks and golf were essential and an alternative was being laid off, Sanders said.

“I appreciate the city’s efforts to try and retain staff in a unique way. I wish they had given us the option on furlough versus reassignment and took more time to understand our workloads before moving us over to 32 hours a week to parks and rec, leaving eight hours to work on our hired roles,” Sanders said. “The daily unknown of what each day looked like and working in areas that we had no experience in negatively impacted my mental health and well-being. A furlough in the long run would’ve been the preferred option for me, looking back.”

In an August 2019 email exchange between Buhler and council members as they were contemplating who to hire for the city manager position, Buhler advised them to pick someone other than Ott. The Aspen Times obtained the emails through a Colorado Open Records Act request.

“Big picture, I’m not in support of Sara Ott for this hire,” Buhler wrote to council members Ann Mullins and Ward Hauenstein. “I have worked directly with her since her arrival in Aspen, and to be honest, she makes me hate my job.”

Buhler said at the time that she did have conversations with council members about her particular gripes with Ott.

Wheeler board chairman Chip Fuller confirmed this week that Buhler has told him she felt “underpaid, undervalued and disrespected.”

Yet other department heads who left the organization said they felt Ott was a breath of fresh air after 19 years of Barwick and were sorry they were leaving under her tenure, but were doing so for personal or professional reasons.

While Barwick has been described as a hands-off city manager and disengaged in recent years, Ott is hands-on and engaged, observers said.

“There was a culture crisis and she holds people accountable,” said one former department head. “Most of the people who left is a good thing.”

Ott characterized herself as a much more engaged collaborator than her predecessor, and where some people see micromanagement, she said she “offers support from my office.”

“For every one director who has left, there are 10 directors who want to be here,” she said.

Farrell, who has worked for the city for 16 years, said the past year’s turnover might be related to where the culture is heading, which ultimately results in the quantity and quality of deliverables to the Aspen community.

“Turnover is common in organizations when a new CEO, superintendent or city or county manager is hired, especially in circumstances similar to the city where a city manager had been with the city for a long period of time,” she wrote in an email to the Times. “Change is hard. There is no easy path to cultural change and the path forward of a values-based culture with accountability is the direction we are heading towards.”

Some employees and an official from another jurisdiction who has worked with Ott have described the city’s culture as “corporate” and walled off from the public.

Ott, who is a generation ahead of Barwick in public administration training and education, said as city manager it is her responsibility to bring a level of professionalism and accountability to all departments.

“If (City Council) wanted status quo, my predecessor would still be here,” she said. “I made it clear that I wouldn’t be a status quo manager.”

Making the grade

City Council is currently working on a format to evaluate Ott’s performance, which is done on an annual basis with the city manager position.

Mayor Torre said he is taking feedback from council members on how to make the current review system more robust, and hopes to have the evaluation done in the next month.

Hauenstein said he’d like to use a third-party facilitator to assist with this year’s review, with the turnover in mind.

“I think it’s a valid subject inquiry,” he said. “As we go into the first year, it’s important to understand what the culture is, what it was, and do we have a healthy culture at the city?”

Mullins said she also supports a third-party consultant at least for the first review of Ott because the evaluation process needs to be much more stringent than it is.

Ott gave herself a seven or eight out of 10 on job performance.

“There’s a lot of things that haven’t gotten done,” she said. “COVID has thrown a wrench in it all. … I can’t get those six months back.”

Mullins said she would give Ott a slightly higher grade for the city’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, as well as her work with the community, the staff and council.

“I’m a fan of hers,” she said, adding she is unsure of the credibility of employees who have left and are speaking up. “This council struggles with policy and I think she has done a fabulous job helping council through COVID and what the community wants.”

Hauenstein, who said council is limited in its dealings with individual staff members, said he also is satisfied with Ott’s performance, giving her a B or B-plus.

He said he recognizes the additional stress the pandemic has had on city staff, and having to implement new programs on the fly such as establishing a mandatory mask zone, a rent relief program for businesses and other initiatives as part of the city’s $6 million COVID-19 response and recovery package.

“I think Sara has established some good communications with other agencies that did not exist before,” Hauenstein said. “It’s hard to hold Sara accountable on what our goals are because we haven’t been able to get to them.”

Torre said turnover at the top isn’t necessarily a red flag for him but council is looking at the overall issue, including the cost of recruiting and hiring.

That’s in time and energy, along with the financial costs of recruiting, particularly during a pandemic, and the city’s limited ability to offer competitive compensation packages and housing.

He gave Ott a B or B-plus, or an eight out of 10 on the scale.

“There was a change in directive, as well as a change in leadership,” Torre said. “She was moving us in a clear direction and COVID has made us take a left turn in what has been a very difficult first year.”

City Councilwoman Rachel Richards said Ott has brought a level of professionalism to the administration and is comfortable with the work that city departments are doing.

“I believe Sara brings a great deal of structure to issues,” she said. “Some people don’t respond well to that much structure.”

Richards also said she sees the change in personnel as a positive.

“It’s a real opportunity for the city manager to restructure the organization and reassess it,” she said.

Looking through a new lens

Ott said she expects employees to grow in four areas, only one of which has been addressed sufficiently in her mind and that is in technical skills.

What needs improvement is team, management and leadership skills, Ott said.

“I see an area where we need to invest because we need to bring our best game to the table,” she said. “We owe it to the community to not fall behind.”

But it’s difficult to keep up when the pandemic forced department heads to reprioritize.

“I wanted to give these directors a focus on these areas and they weren’t able to do that,” Ott said.

She said there are a lot of things to celebrate in her first year, particularly the city’s quick response in re-engineering government services in a matter of days after COVID-19 hit Aspen, along with dedicating thousands of hours of staff time to response and recovery efforts.

“The vast majority (of city staff) is knocking it out of the park,” Ott said.

The hiring of a new Wheeler executive director is expected by December; filling the APCHA department head role may take longer as the city administration surveys what kind of leader it is looking for.

“You wait and hire the right person and that’s important to me,” Ott said. “We are not going to rush this. We are going to meet the needs of the (APCHA) board and the community.”

Assistant City Manager Diane Foster, who has been on the job since May, is acting as interim executive director of APCHA.

She told the APCHA board last week that a survey among city and county employees, as well as elected officials and citizen volunteers overseeing the affordable housing program, indicates that the next APCHA executive director should have high integrity, be trustworthy, have outstanding management and relationship skills, and prioritize equity and inclusion.

An internal review of the job description is underway and then a recruiting firm will be hired.

“We’re looking for a super-talented unicorn,” Foster told the APCHA board during its Sept. 16 meeting. “I think in this case, there might be a whole herd of unicorns out there.”

Foster, who moved here from Park City, Utah, also is in charge of the Wheeler Opera House. She is working in tandem with Nancy Lesley, the city’s director of special events and marketing, who is serving as interim executive director of the Wheeler.

Scott Miller, the city’s public works director, is acting as interim capital asset director as he reassesses the structure of the department.

He, along with Farrell, had served as interim assistant city managers in addition to their other job titles to help fill the void when Ott was left as the only administrator in the city manager’s office.

“Sara started with nobody,” Mullins reflected. “She has built a team and she fights hard for the city’s interest.”