Former Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick, who resigned at the city council’s request in January, has been hired as county administrative officer in Mono County, Calif.
Barwick’s new job as chief administrator overseeing all governmental operations in the Eastern Sierra county that is home to the Mammoth Mountain ski area and an entrance to Yosemite National Park will begin Sept. 9
Barwick has applied for multiple city manager jobs since March, including positions in Avon and Flagstaff; he said on Wednesday that he is excited to be returning to work in a mountain resort community, but it is “bittersweet” to be leaving Aspen, where he has lived since 1993, when he started here as the city finance director.
There is also a big difference in managing a compact city such as Aspen compared to a rural county such as Mono County, which spans 3,132 square miles — 92 percent of which is public land. He also noted some of the changes inherent in moving from Aspen to almost any place else. While there are common development and environmental issues, in his observation so far, the rural areas surrounding Mammoth aren’t under as much pressure in terms of “extremely wealthy out of towners buying up all the ranches and turning them into their own private horse farms.”
Mono County is home to 14,200 residents, most of whom live in and around the only incorporated town, Mammoth Lakes, near the base of the ski area. Smaller pockets of the population are spread out among 17 census-designated places and the county seat is an hour’s drive away in Bridgeport.
“The CAO is expected to balance their time between the county offices in both Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes, focusing on transparency, face-to-face communication with all staff, and bringing collective team-building strategies to both offices,” according to job recruitment materials from the Prothman executive search firm hired by the county. … The new CAO will need to evaluate the organizational layout of buildings and staff and create a plan that provides consistent management of staff while optimizing customer service.”
The county has 270 full-time employees and a $101 million annual budget, according to a press release, all of which Barwich will oversee. It is 315 miles north of Los Angeles and 280 miles east of San Francisco.
The job will pay $190,000 annually, Barwick said, but it does not come with housing, which he and his wife, Shirley Tipton, will have to secure on their own.
John Peters, the county’s board of supervisors chairman, said in a press release, “It is my sincere pleasure to welcome Mr. Barwick and his wife to Mono County. Mr. Barwick comes to the county with many years of public service and a wealth of experience from the city of Aspen, Colorado. I am certain that he brings with him the skills, dedication, and knowledge to move Mono County forward to accomplish our strategic priorities and maintain fiscal resiliency while enhancing our workforce.”
The release noted that the Mono County job attracted 45 applicants.
Barwick said he is happy to be returning to California, as he was raised in the Napa Valley and said he regularly visited the Sierra Nevada region as a teenager.
“I am excited for the challenge, the opportunity and the adventure,” Barwick said.
Since his departure from Aspen’s city hall, Barwick has been named a finalist for at least five other top-administrator positions, according to published reports from around the county. These include Mill Creek, Wash., where he was named as a finalist in March; Avon, Colo., in March; Marco Island, Fla., in April; Flagstaff, Ariz. in June; and Springfield, Ore. in June.
Process or politics?
Barwick’s split with the city of Aspen came in the middle of the campaign season for the March 5 municipal election and following a handful of high-profile communication breakdowns involving various aspects of city administration.
In the month before the council asked for Barwick’s resignation, the city backed away from elaborate plans to stage a “mobility lab” in the upper valley this summer, after those plans angered local transportation providers, including High Mountain Taxi and numerous smaller private shuttle companies. Then-councilman Adam Frisch, who was at that time running for mayor (he came in third), criticized the city manager’s office for not doing more to reach out to the local providers before announcing a proposed contract with the national ride-hailing company Lyft, which was to provide mobility services including subsidized on-demand rides and expanded fixed-route service from the Brush Creek Park and Ride. Council declined to approve the deal, thus killing the mobility lab that was a major initiative of Mayor Steve Skadron.
Around that same time,Assistant City Manager Barry Crook stepped down after he angrily and publicly cursed out members of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board of directors, who were seeking additional concessions from the city in light of a request that APCHA sign on as a partner in three new city housing projects.
Barwick’s support was already shaky on the council, with Councilman Bert Myrin expressing his lack of enthusiasm for the city manager throughout his four-year term and Frisch’s growing displeasure, which reached back to frustration with an ill-fated bike lane project that would sacrifice parking. When Barwick didn’t act fast enough to clean up the mess following Crook’s resignation — he was out of town when council members showed up to apologize to the APCHA board — it helped lead to Councilman Ward Hauenstein joining the movement to oust Barwick.
The council, at the pleasure of which the city manager serves, asked for Barwick’s resignation on Jan. 7, entitling him to a year’s severance pay equivalent to his $195,228 annual salary, per the terms of his employment contract. He stayed on through late February to assist in the transition that has seen the promotion of Assistant City Manager Sara Ott to interim city manager. He was also granted the right to remain in his city-controlled home through March 2020, as long as he was looking for a new job.
A story in theArizona Daily Sun concerning Barwick’s being named as a finalist for city manager of Flagstaff noted Barwick’s split in Aspen.
“While newspapers in the town said Barwick’s departure was due to a lack of transparency and communication, he disagreed with that characterization,” the June 22 story says. “He blamed the upcoming election, citing the city’s mayor who called his departure a political decision.
“I survived all of that for 19 years as a city manager, which nobody else has ever done,” Barwick said in the Arizona story. “If those issues that they used as a reason were true, it never showed up in evaluation for over 19 years. They weren’t complaining about it beforehand.”
A story in the June 26Eugene Register-Guardabout the Springfield city manager search noted that, “Forced departures of city managers are not atypical, particularly in smaller communities. A study found the average tenure of a city manager is about eight years. In the council-manager form of government, elected city councilors hire and oversee the work of city managers, and a change in their membership can leave a manager out of a job.”
The Marco Eagle newspaper in Florida reached out for comment to Skadron, who was perhaps Barwick’s strongest supporter on the former council, and the ex-mayorgave his endorsement.
“He partly got caught up in an election cycle here,” Skadron told the paper in a story under the headline “Current Marco city manager candidates fell victim to politics in losing previous positions.” “We had three city council members running for seats and they wanted to be seen as change agents and wanted to shake things up. And I think that Steve just got caught up in that. He was here for 19 years, and that should speak volumes about his abilities. But there were those who felt it was best to change things just for the sake of change. It really didn’t have anything to do with his skill set or abilities.”
The city of Aspen is now beginning to sort through the more than 60 applications for Barwick’s permanent replacement, with finalist interviews with set to take place on Aug. 8 and 9.