Paul Menter

Last week the city of Aspen named its four finalists for its first city manager hiring decision of the new millennium. They are current interim manager Sarah Ott, retired Marine and private community manager Rob Entyre, municipal attorney Katherine Warren Lewis and Blair King, interestingly the only finalist currently working in a permanent city manager role.

I know exactly nothing about any of these candidates, but I do know one thing: Aspen does not need a caretaker city manager. It needs a change agent.

Is the city council ready to support someone willing to break a few eggs to build a better city government? As the old saying goes, you can’t make a soufflé without breaking a few of those little guys. Is there a change-agent candidate in the finalist pool? If so, will the city council hire him or her? Time will tell.

It’s been a long time since Aspen hired a city manager. Steve Barwick ascended to the role in 1999. Irrespective of whether you think he was a good or a bad manager, his management style, and the organizational culture and expectations created by his long tenure, are metaphorically etched in granite inside the walls of city hall. The person who replaces Aspen’s last city manager will need to work to shift elected council members, staff and the community to his or her leadership and management style. Not an easy task in a place with such marked social and political homogeneity.

Back in the year 2000, Douglas Watson and Wendy Hassett, in writing the research paper “The 20 Year Manager: Factors of Longevity,” for the International City and County Management Association, calculated the average city manager tenure at 6.9 years, slightly longer than an NFL football player’s six-year career. They identify two primary, interrelated factors (among several) that lead to longer than average city manager tenure:

1. A homogeneous population where

2. There is political stability — meaning disagreements among those who are elected are few.

Not too many communities are more homogeneous, ethnically or politically (at least among those who seek office), than Aspen, and while Aspen experiences political discord, comparatively little manifests itself as disputes among council members.

Most current-day Aspen political discord occurs as disagreements between the city and groups of residents who oppose its decisions or actions — such as the Castle Creek Energy Center project — or with specific issues — such as the downtown parking scandal. Both were misguided, mis-managed, multi-year, slow-motion train wrecks where the city council ultimately acted as the city manager’s protector.

This politically stable homogeneity encourages an ingrained, self-reinforcing organizational culture and makes the likelihood that the city manager will be caught between council factions far smaller than in most communities. No wonder Barwick’s tenure was three times the national average.

In my experience and observation, such communities are magnets for caretaker managers, and the urge to find someone to fit that caretaker role can be intoxicating. But in Aspen, it would be the wrong decision. The problem with that approach is the organization’s condition beneath the surface, which, by the way, is not all that smooth to start with.

And what’s beneath those waves? An organization designed for the past trying to address the needs of a citizenry bent on participating in the future. Managers in all fields are prone to structure their organizations to support their leadership and management approach. Two decades of the same city manager provides sufficient justification for an in-depth analysis of the city’s organizational structure, something a change-agent manager can do.

There is a very credible argument that Aspen, like many American cities, is a municipal government organizationally and structurally designed for the 1990s, not for the future. The organizational chart, the approach to staffing, even the underlying assumptions for the size and use of the new city offices building, all reflect the comfortable convention of centralized workplaces designed to meet the needs of an ever-growing bureaucracy, not the citizens.

While the modern workplace radically transforms across the globe, the city of Aspen’s nod to  assessing its future office needs was to analyze whether or not to operate out of two buildings (the current city hall and the yet-to-be-built city offices building) rather than just one new city hall, by estimating the amount of time staff would waste walking back and forth between them. The city decided the extra staff motion didn’t waste enough time to merit a single new city hall big enough for everyone. But then they appear to have designed one anyway in the new city offices building and its unprogrammed third floor, while still holding on to the venerable Armory as the “official” city hall.

Why operate out of one building when you can have two at twice the price?

In the modern workplace, employees and their customers collaborate from different time zones, even different continents. It won’t be long before physically separated workers and customers can sit and work, virtually, in the same room. In the advent of such a future, why would the city of Aspen be planning for its employees to walk back and forth across Main Street for the next 50 years? The answer might have something to do with the city’s organizational culture.

Don’t get me wrong — the Aspen city manager role is a tough job. Those who threw their hat in the ring deserve everyone’s admiration for being willing to take on the city’s future challenges. But it’s no place for a caretaker. The challenges are just too great.