Aspen Times editorial: New city manager has opportunity to right ship for Aspen government
For the first time in nearly two decades, top officials for the city of Aspen — from electeds to the appointed — have an opportunity to set a tone for the future as a group, breaking down walls and divisions that were created by a previous city manager.
But it will take the focus of the new city manager and the direction from the City Council, which has three new members including a new mayor, to get the 320-plus full-time city employees re-engaged in their vision.
Sara Ott, who was promoted to city manager earlier this month, was picked as an assistant in the department in March 2017 out of nearly 150 applicants. Her boss, who she is replacing, said that when she interviewed she met with many of the city’s senior-level managers and she “received positive feedback from those interactions.”
While there were 64 candidates for the city manager job, it came down to three. Ott beat out two extremely qualified finalists and we agree with council’s decision that she is the best person to repair a strained relationship between City Hall and the community.
Ott, 41, also has to rebuild the confidence of the city staff, which has experienced low morale under previous leadership. She should prioritize making sure everyone who works there feels comfortable bringing forward an issue or problem, and potential solutions. No matter the level of government.
Overall, morale has been low for a long time around City Hall, and it will take time to rebuild trust. From the top, Ott can set that foundation in whom she hires as the two new assistant city managers, one to fill her spot and one vacated in December by the forced resignation of Barry Crook.
This is an opportunity where Aspen can get back to a strong council-manager form of government in that elected officials set policy and the budget and rely on the city manager and staff to carry out those requests. For too long, the city manager’s office was given too much power and often dictated the direction of government.
Initiatives need to start with the council, which is one of the most diverse in the city’s history in that it represents five decades of age brackets and elected experience from zero to 25 years. It’s then up to Ott to prioritize those initiatives and send them on to execute.
And we believe she will. Ott is direct, focused and ready to dig in. She’s been successful in handling triage within the organization since she took the interim job.
She is utilizing what she’s learned from previous government experience in Ohio. We can already see changes in how she and staff communicate with elected officials and the public.
We are happy to see that Ott’s approach for leading the city is based in the Aspen Idea, which is centered around the mind, body and spirit way of life here.
Ott does not come into her job without her detractors. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in government or the private sector who makes everyone happy. But her actions in these early months should help sway some of those critics or at least earn their respect.
In addition to rebuilding the city manager’s office and the relationship with council, Ott needs to keep a handle on the controversial city office project at Rio Grande Place, and keep the government from going down a rabbit hole with costs and time.
She has to balance keeping the community and council happy, but as top city administrator, we need her and staff focused on the timeline, budget and what goes in the new building. And that communication with the public remains a priority.
What we’ve heard from council is that the government has hundreds of affordable housing units in the pipeline. We appreciate the extensive public process that those projects are going through but we hope Ott won’t let them get bogged down in bureaucracy.
She said she’s going to start her new job in earnest by walking neighborhoods with residents and launch a listening tour. We think this is exactly the right approach, particularly since much of the community hasn’t felt like it’s had a voice in recent years.
Ott has her work cut out for her but we, like City Council, have the faith and confidence that she can and will succeed.
The Aspen Times editorial board consists of publisher Samantha Johnston, editor David Krause and reporters Rick Carroll, Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason.