City News

A quiet force working behind the scenes, Steve Powers heads for retirement

City Manager Steve Powers. (Courtesy/ Tami Carpenter)

Steve Powers sees himself as an orchestra conductor, guiding the flow of Salem’s work while keeping the spotlight on the music, not himself.

It’s an apt metaphor for a city manager who’s often quiet at council meetings, preferring to let city employees present their work or councilors debate policy without butting in.

After six years of serving as the City of Salem’s top official, Powers is retiring.

He and his wife, Jayne, are moving to Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to be closer to their three children.

Powers, 59, came to Salem in 2015 from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he spent four years as the city administrator. 

Salem has a council-manager form of government, meaning a volunteer, elected city council led by the mayor serves as the legislative body and appoints a city manager to oversee day-to-day operations, enforce the council’s policies and draft a budget.

In the conductor role, Powers said city councilors are deciding what type of music will be performed, or what they’d like to hear more or less of.

“It’s my job to make sure the orchestra responds,” he said.

Since Powers came to Salem, the city has grappled with the Covid pandemic, an escalating homelessness problem, a toxic algae bloom in the city’s water supply, an ice storm and deadly heat wave.

Salem Reporter sat down with Powers before his last day on Feb. 28. The city will begin a nationwide search for his replacement after a recruiter completes a profile of what councilors are looking for.

Kristin Retherford, director of the Urban Development Department, will serve as interim city manager.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

During your six-year tenure, what are accomplishments that you’re proud of?

I really consider myself someone who’s worked alongside others, and I’ve made contributions. I provided some direction but I’m not going to point to anything I did. I’ll remember fondly being part of the effort to build a new police station. I’m proud of my role in selecting Chief (Trevor) Womack as our new police chief. Proud of my contributions towards having the city’s department directors, our leadership team, work effectively with city council to work on delivering services during some challenging times.

What are some of the struggles you’ve faced as city manager that you see continuing past when you leave?

The city is going to continue to struggle with increasing needs and limited resources. That was here when I arrived and I think it’s going to continue as our city grows, as the city has gotten more directly involved in trying to help our homeless residents. Help them through the Homeless Rental Assistance Program, through the micro shelter villages – that’s becoming increasingly expensive and an increasingly necessary part of what we do as a city. So that’s going to add to the challenge of the needs within police, fire, parks, the library.

What about Salem feels different from when you first moved here in 2015?

The pandemic obviously. Less of that in-person engagement. I found Salem when I first got here to be highly in-person. Lots of lunches, lots of meetings, Salem Convention Center. Maybe it’s because we’re the state capitol. Everyone wanted to talk and politick and discuss. And the neighborhood association meetings, and while those are still going on certainly it’s much different. Fewer opportunities to do that than when I first arrived.

The work that followed the protests has led to a different awareness, at least on the part of the city, in terms of our community policing review and the work that Chief Womack is doing with procedural justice and integrity and trust isn’t necessarily different than it was in 2015, but it’s certainly more intentional.

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett and city manager Steve Powers sit in on a video call to discuss how to hold virtual city council meetings on Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Why do you think homelessness has worsened during your time here?

I think it’s grown because of the national and state problems we have. I think we’ve made a difference in helping people move from homelessness. I think unfortunately the need is so great I’m not sure there’s a net decrease. Spending money on the managing, preventing and ending homelessness, that’s work that will likely need to continue for a while.

What do you think is needed to solve the homelessness crisis?

Cities as the level of government that ends up having to respond to the consequences, the impacts of decisions made by others. Decisions made at the federal, state and regional level. We have to as a city, and we’re not alone – Eugene, Portland is going through it – we have to manage the impacts. We have to try to maintain and keep clean city properties, parks, rights of way. Through our Salem Housing Authority, Salem has throughout the decades provided affordable housing to residents, we stepped up that more recently through Mayor (Chuck) Bennett’s investment in the Homeless Rental Assistance Program.

The ending homelessness I think really that has to involve policies at the federal, state level and then implementation at a regional level. Because that’s really where the cities can’t do it by themselves, because we don’t do the behavioral health, the addiction work. We don’t provide “safety net” programs … in my opinion we just really can’t be in that space. That’s really a space of others, federal government, state government, nonprofits, maybe the faith community.

City Manager Steve Powers responds to questions from the a crowd of neighbors at Pringle Community Hall on Jan. 17, 2020. The city had planned to turn the hall into an emergency homeless shelter. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

(In a 2019 performance review, councilors praised Powers but said he could do better at communicating, especially following the 2018 water crisis when Salem’s drinking water was contaminated. A report found the city’s initial messaging caused chaos.)

I’m wondering what you took from that (review) and more broadly some of the communication challenges that have happened over the years, be it the water crisis or the protest curfew?

Certainly it was a reminder of the importance of: when you think you’re communicating, you’re just starting to communicate. Regardless of whether I thought I was communicating, if the feedback was more was needed, I needed to try to meet that need.

I certainly tried to increase the frequency of my weekly updates to council.

On the water issue specifically, that really made me a believer in the importance of social media. I’m older, I’m still more of an email and I guess more traditional ways of communicating.

In your opinion, what are the qualities that would make a good city manager?

It’s really someone who can lead, who can bring the pieces together and make sure they’re going in the same direction. Someone who’s good working with an elected body, whether city council or city commission or county board. Personally, it’s critical that the person is a person of integrity. A person that can establish and maintain trust.

Is there a specific quality or trait that you have that you’ve leaned on in these years?

One thing that has really gotten me through is confidence I had and have in the people I was working with. Their competency, their integrity. And then I feel my ability to provide a nudge or some course correction, some explanation to others about, ‘This is where we’re headed, this is what we’re doing.’ And not to hesitate if we were on the correct direction and decisions needed to be made.

I have always seen you as the quiet voice at the city council meetings, taking a very calculated, measured approach when you do weigh in. What is the reasoning behind that?

Some managers are much more verbose and much more assertive in a council meeting that I am. I’ve learned over the years that it’s really their meeting. Our work really occurs ahead of time. We have to be ready and I consider it a success if during a meeting I don’t have to say anything. When our staff work is so good that the information is presented in a clear way, the choices are clear and they can really spend the time debating, discussing the policies involved. And if they need understanding of the issue it doesn’t have to be me. I learned that early on. I didn’t have an ego need to have all questions come to me and I needed to provide the response.

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett meets with city manager Steve Powers on Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Where do you hope to see the city go when you leave? If someone were to send you a letter from Salem a year from now, two years from now, what would you hope was in it?

That there was some recognition that my time here helped make a difference. And also, it’d be refreshing and I think an honest letter if the letter included, ‘Hey, this idea we dropped because it was kind of a bad idea, Steve.’

Is there anything specific that you would hope continues?

I hope the city’s participation in economic community development, our work in urban renewal, our work with SEDCOR on a regional level. Over the last six years, the economy was going so strong that I think some of that has been forgotten or it’s certainly less prominent in its importance as we’ve spent more time talking about and responding to natural emergencies or homelessness. I think that’s a quiet, important, vital really role for the city to play. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]. 

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