Sara Ott, an assistant city manager with the city of Aspen since 2017, and who has served as Aspen’s interim city manager since the former City Manager Steve Barwick’s departure in January, is the council’s pick for Aspen’s next city manager.
Ott was one of three finalists who were interviewed and made presentations to the community earlier this month in a search that attracted 64 applicants. Following those interviews, the council directed staff to negotiate a contract with Ott. Along with her personal attorney, she and the council, with input from city staff, negotiated a contract for her permanent appointment as city manager that will pay her a base salary of $203,000 annually, effective on Sept. 1.
The city council will hold a special meeting on Tuesday at 4 p.m. to consider a resolution formally adopting Ott’s contract.
The other finalists who were interviewed were Robb Etnyre, general manager of the Tahoe Donner homeowners association in California, and Katherine Warren Lewis, who is lead counsel for community and economic development for Salt Lake City.
Torre, Aspen’s mayor, said the council was unanimous in its direction to move forward with hiring Ott for city manager.
“Her qualifications and her training, her experience in municipal management as well as here in Aspen and ultimately her commitment to the job but also Aspen and the community” are what set Ott apart from the rest of the field, Torre said.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said Ott was “the most experienced and the most educated in municipal governance of any of the candidates we interviewed” and that the field was competitive.
“I have read folks expressing any number of opinions or advice, particularly the term ‘change agent’ … and I would simply say it is up to council to be the change agent,” Richards said. “It is up to council to set clear policy and have a talented and skilled administrator to carry those directions out.”
The council in January, which consisted of different members than the current board, asked Ott’s predecessor, Steve Barwick, to resign following a number of incidents that were seen as communication breakdowns. Those included the city walking back an effort to subsidize new transportation alternatives in the face of opposition from existing service providers; and a dispute with the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority over its role in a city-funded housing development project. In the case of the APCHA dispute, assistant city manager Barry Crook resigned after angrily stating his opposition to APCHA’s request for financial consideration on the sidelines of a public meeting.
Barwick had been Aspen’s city manager for 19 years.
With Crook and Barwick out and Ott stepping up into the interim city manager role, she was faced with running the city manager’s office on her own; typically there are three senior managers. She eventually appointed two department heads — Alissa Farrell from human resources and Scott Miller from public works — as interim assistant city managers, though they both maintained their leadership roles in their own departments.
Ott’s ability to navigate the transition impressed Richards.
“I have seen Sara managing the responsibilities of literally three people over the past eight months,” she said. “I feel that seeing her fully empowered to be the manager as opposed to the temporary authority that an acting manager has is a very positive step for accomplishing council goals. … I feel she is a very capable administrator and I feel she has cut a very strong and differentiating course from prior management during her time juggling three people’s responsibilities.”
Torre agreed that change must come from the council, but he noted that in the interview process Ott stressed some of the cultural changes at city hall she would implement as the top manager.
“Communication, transparency and an inclusive city hall are three things that this council and Sara have talked about,” he said.
Torre added that he is “really excited to move on from this phase and I’m really excited to work with Sara on the goals and ambitions” that the mayor, the council and the presumptive new city manager share.
Ott’s proposed base salary of $203,000 is near the middle of the range published for the position of $180,000 to $214,000. Ott will be eligible for performance-based raises each year. She is currently living in a city-controlled housing unit with her family, including two elementary-school aged children.
Under her proposed contract, Ott would receive 10 months of pay and health insurance if she is dismissed without cause. In the event that she is out of the job, the contract allows her to stay in her home for six months or until 30 days after the end of the current school year, whichever is longer.
The city engaged the executive search firm of Peckham & McKenney to help write the city manager’s job description and provide initial vetting of candidates.
Ott’s path to Aspen
Prior to joining the Aspen city manager’s office, where she replaced longtime assistant city manager Randy Ready, Ott was the administrator of Washington Township, located in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. That post was on the level of the city manager. A township, which is not a form of government that exists in Colorado, falls on the spectrum between a municipality and a county.
Ott told the Daily News shortly after she started that she was attracted to Aspen because she wanted a community where the citizenry is engaged and city hall marshals the support of its constituents to achieve progressive goals.
Ott’s first job was doing community service in her local government where she went to high school, and she has been working in the public sector ever since. In addition to being a township administrator, she also previously worked as a senior project manager and accreditation coordinator in Dublin, Ohio, and has worked for cities in Missouri and Kansas.
She has a bachelor’s degree in politics and government and urban studies from Ohio Wesleyan University and a master’s of public administration from the University of Kansas, and she also has completed leadership training with University of Virginia and the International City/County Management Association.