Aspen City Council will hold a special meeting this afternoon to formally approve the hire of Sara Ott as the new Aspen city manager.
“I felt really strongly that I wanted to be part of this community and give back to it in a way that met my personal and professional goals,” Ott said in an interview on Friday.
The news of council’s selection for the city’s top position came last week when the special meeting agenda was publicly posted. Ott, who has served as interim city manager since February, beat out two other finalists in a months-long national search. Her contract includes an annual salary of $203,000.
Ott has served as assistant city manager since 2017 and in February she was named interim city manager after the departure of city manager Steve Barwick and assistant city manager Barry Crook. Barwick was earning $195,228 annually when, after 20 years in the role, he was asked to resign by the council.
As stipulated in the contract, Ott “shall be the chief executive officer of the city; shall hire, fire, assign and direct the workforce of the city under her supervision; (and) shall organize, reorganize and arrange the administrative and supervisory staff, as best serves the needs of the city.”
Restaffing the upper administration will be one of Ott’s first tasks. This winter she placed Alissa Farrell and Scott Miller as the two interim assistant city managers, though they also continue to lead the human resources department and public works, respectively.
“The way we are right now is a matter of triaging in January. It’s not sustainable for the long run for the community or the organization, so we are going to be having some internal conversations,” Ott said.
Ott also intends to launch community conversations right off the bat, beginning by being present at the city’s booth at the farmers market this weekend.
“I want to hear what's important to them. That’s one of the many ways I hope to spend some time — hearing a lot of different perspectives going forward.”
In the final stage of the hiring process, candidates gave public presentations in front of council addressing an aspect of the Aspen Area Community Plan of their choosing. Ott focused on affordable housing, offering a broad-scope outline for council to use to frame its decision making.
She said during Friday’s interview that housing is one thing that the majority of the community agrees on when priority setting, but there are other matters that will need more sussing out, like the current conversations around providing infant care in Aspen.
“The council and the organization need to do some priority setting. And I think the community gets that. There are competing interests for the time and resources. We are going to have to make some choices as a community and that’s OK — I think we are all up for it,” she said.
Ott was hired by a council that is itself just getting seated. Mayor Torre and councilmembers Rachel Richards and Skippy Mesirow beat out candidates who served on the last council in an election that showed the voting public is ready for change. Ott cautions, though, that the change agents need to remain on council, not within city staff.
“The city manager’s job is not to make policy,” Ott said. “The council has that obligation to the voters to make policy choices that help move the community where it wants to go. And I’m excited, I think we have a council that is committed to doing that.”
Ott said she will use those directives to define the mission and guide the workplace environment for her staff.
“Ensuring that our values are articulated and are incorporated into how we do our work is fundamental to how I lead,” Ott said. “The community defines what the work is for us, but creating some clear expectations and consistency throughout the organization is one of my priorities.”
The official hiring of the new city manager needs to be done in a public meeting, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. today, though Ott’s contract lists a Sept. 1 start date.
In his memo to council, City Attorney Jim True outlined four actions the council can take, ranging from Torre signing the contract to re-opening the hiring process altogether. During the final candidate interviews, Torre said it his hope that by the time the contract is signed publicly, the council will be unanimous in its selection.
Now that she knows she is here for the long haul, Ott said she and the council are ready to move forward on initiatives that were left spinning during the hiring process.
“We’d all much rather be part of the conversation than not have one at all,” she said. “There are so many things to make improvements in and that we can advance.”