The plaza of Salem City Hall pictured last summer. (Salem Reporter files)
Salem City Manager Steve Powers continues to have full support of the Salem city councilors but he could work to communicate better, according to an annual performance review.
Councilors recently completed the review, scoring the city’s top employee on nine job duties and leaving anonymous comments. Former councilor Steve McCoid used the scores to write an overview.
“In all cases, the council stated they felt City Manager Powers was doing a good job, had their support and was appreciated for the management skills he brings to Salem,” read the overview. “As with all of us, the council appropriately pointed out areas for improvement and suggestions on how to get there.”
Powers, who took the job November 2015, earned highest marks in management categories, such as how well he oversaw staff and budgets. One councilor credited him with giving the city a strategic plan, which helps guide the council for years.
“I think the city having a strategic plan is a major accomplishment and this is an accomplishment that Steve should get credit for and be proud of achieving,” the councilor wrote.
Mayor Chuck Bennett told Salem Reporter he felt Powers has also fostered a more inclusive budget process, enabling more council and public input than in years past. It was Powers’ idea to start the Sustainable Services Revenue Task Force, which aims to address the city’s budget shortfall.
“(Budgeting used to be) more an administrator’s view of what should be done. This is policy driven,” Bennett said. “He really gave the council — and, really, the public — much more involvement in developing the city budget along the lines of what people want to have happen.”
Councilors felt Powers has the right temperament for the job, saying he was “always one step ahead,” and a “first class manager.”
Still, many of the longest answers in the 11-page review mentioned he needed to communicate better. Some said he needed to be more vocal in community meetings.
“(Powers) could do better at ‘pushing’ council on issues that are important to the city as a whole,” one councilor wrote. “Become more confident.”
“Despite his introverted style, Steve does a good job here,” another wrote. “Suggestions – Be as visible as possible because it should be that way and to counteract any transparency issues.”
One councilor graded Powers lower than his or her peers. On a scale of a low one to a high six, councilors on average scored Powers between a four and a five. This councilor gave Powers his only scores of one and two and did not score the “senior team leadership” category.
“Difficult to rate this. He appears to let 1 or 2 executive managers run amok. Where is the accountability for public works director?” the councilor wrote.
On the “self-management” category, that councilor gave Powers a full score and called him a “person of integrity.”
Councilors also brought up some specific events Powers didn’t handle well. Many brought up last summer’s water crisis, when toxic algal blooms tainted the city’s drinking water supply. A city-commissioned report said in September that the city’s lack of communication fueled panic.
“The water crisis did Steve no favors and largely what was disappointing is that Steve didn’t take a leadership role during the crisis,” a councilor wrote. “Instead, it seems he let others largely make all the decisions, didn’t understand the severity of the situation, and failed to act appropriately in both communications with the council and the public.”
“I do have to give credit that after the special council meeting during the water crisis and really in the few months since then that communication with council has improved,” the councilor added.
Councilors also recommended Powers soon find a deputy city manager to replace Kacey Duncan, who left recently to pursue a private business venture.
Most councilors declined to comment or couldn't be reached. Councilor Tom Andersen said he felt assured that Powers has taken council’s reviews seriously.
“He’s been open and responsive,” Andersen said. “He’s appeared in front of every neighborhood group I’m involved in, answered questions and does his best to represent the views of the city as promulgated by policy.”
Powers earns $220,500 per year, overseeing about 1,200 employees and nearly half a billion in city funds. Prior to coming to Salem, he was city administrator for four years at Ann Arbor, Mich.
The review provided Powers much valued feedback, he told Salem Reporter.
“It helps me in making changes in my performance and making changes in where I’m spending time,” he said. “It’s good feedback for me. I have been at this awhile — over 30 years — so I think I have a pretty good sense of what I’m doing and what I should do.”
When asked what guidance he gathered from the evaluation, Powers said he felt there wasn’t anything “significant” but that it reinforced that recent changes would address council’s concerns. He noted the city the sustainable services revenue task force has issued recommendations. The city has also recently taken steps to treat toxic algal blooms before problems arise.
Regarding the management skills that council appreciated, Powers said that an engaged community and city council help him do the job better, while crediting other department heads.
“I rely heavily on the city’s very competent staff,” he said. “My role is really having the organization work together and bringing forward recommendations that I think make budgetary and financial sense.”
In the future, Powers said there are clear areas he could be more vocal, such as around finance and budgets. And there are clear areas where city council has to take the lead, such as a policy decision to restrict single-use plastic bags.
It’s gray areas where Powers said he is careful. For example, the council said in a policy-setting meeting it wanted to conduct an inventory of local greenhouse gas emissions, a project scheduled to complete in the spring. Powers wouldn’t dictate policy but said he can factor council’s established goals to help make recommendations.
Powers said he is enjoying his work. He called it rewarding and challenging.
“I’m having fun most days,” he said.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.
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