Will the next Aspen city manager step forward?
The three finalists who are vying for the city of Aspen’s top administrator position made their mock presentations in front of City Council on Thursday, showing off their communications skills in front of their would-be bosses.
The city manager candidates were asked to find a focus area or priority within the Aspen Area Community Plan, and how they would carry it forward internally within the municipal organization, as well as out to the community.
They all spoke of their leadership styles and how their experience as government administrators would make them the best fit for Aspen’s city manager.
Two candidates, Katie Lewis and Sara Ott, chose to focus on housing within the AACP, while the third applicant, Robb Etnyre, honed in on the Aspen Idea and strengthening communications between the city and the community, as well as civic engagement.
The candidates were working off of the 2012 AACP, which is a guiding principles document that council bases its decisions off of and is due for an update in the next couple of years.
The Aspen Idea is a decades-old way-of-life concept that encompasses mind, body and spirit for those who live and visit here.
“This is an amazing document to read, particularly the Aspen Idea because it is so entrenched in the culture of this community,” Etnyre said. “You so eloquently described how you want to live in this community and what your expectations are of the cultural norms of this community.”
Ott, who has served as interim city manager since January and is the only internal candidate, was more specific with policy initiatives related to internal strategies and programs for affordable housing, along with developer mitigation, potential land-use code changes and ongoing projects.
“I think I can help you here in Aspen move forward with a lot of things,” she said. “I came into the housing world here for Aspen pretty quickly in December of last year and have spent a lot of time trying to assemble a pathway, really to go forward with the energy the new council is bringing to this issue and the dialogue that is happening in the community right now. …
“When we talk about housing, I think we are having a struggle as a community and I think the struggle is around equality, equity and inclusion.”
Lewis, the senior city attorney for the Salt Lake City Corp., took a higher level overview of the housing issues facing Aspen while showing that she has done her homework, citing specific data such as population segments commuting outside of the city’s urban growth boundaries.
She said Aspen is at a tipping point when it comes to affordable housing.
“The reason I picked housing is because it is the thread that seems to tie all the other policies together, so when I looked at your plan as a whole there’s commitment to environment, climate, transit, the community as a whole, diversity, the lifelong Aspenite, and the tie to all of that is how do we house our residents, our workforce, our seasonal workforce, our community from top to bottom?” Lewis said, adding that her approach as a leader is to “listen, test and decide.”
Etnyre, the general manager and CEO of Tahoe Donner in Truckee, California, zeroed in on the results of the city’s 2018 citizen survey.
He picked up on residents’ increasing dissatisfaction with how the municipal government communicates with them about major issues, and the job the city does matching expenditures to community priorities.
He offered solutions and strategies on how to close the communication gap.
In their introductions, the candidates offered insights into why they are interested in working in the public sector and specifically Aspen.
Lewis told council that as native Coloradan, she is ready to return to her home state, particularly because her parents, along with her brother, live in Carbondale.
She moved to Utah to be a river guide and ski, and eventually got her law degree at the University of Utah and started working in the municipal sector.
Ott took the job as Aspen assistant city manager in 2017, moving here from Ohio where she was the township administrator for three counties.
She has two children in the local school system and has said in the past that she plans to raise them in Aspen through their formative years.
Etnyre, who has been the general manager and CEO of one of the largest homeowner association resorts in the country, is interested in the Aspen job because it would be a natural progression in his career and in a great place; his contract with Tahoe Donner is up in a couple of years.
The candidates also spent Thursday interviewing in front of a leadership panel made up of city staffers who report directly to the city manager, as well as a community panel comprised of four individuals.
The candidates also made themselves available for a meet-and-greet session with members of the public Thursday afternoon.
With just a handful of members of the public in the community room at the Aspen police station, along with city staff and the press, the finalists gave short remarks before mingling with people and answering their questions.
Council will meet in executive session Friday to interview the applicants separately.
Another executive session is scheduled for Aug. 13 so council can discuss the merits of the candidates, weigh feedback from the community and determine the next steps in the hiring process.
The deadline for comments is 5 p.m. Sunday. The public also can submit comments in person at a drop-off box that will be located in City Hall at the finance desk Friday.
A total of 64 people applied for the job through the recruitment firm Peckham & McKenney, which the city hired for $25,000 to find the right candidate to fill the city’s top administrative job after Steve Barwick was forced out at the beginning of the year.