Emails shed light on city manager’s rocky relationship with some members of Steamboat Springs City Council
August 13, 2015
Steamboat Springs — City Manager Deb Hinsvark woke up very early on July 8, upset that Steamboat Springs City Council President Bart Kounovsky had sat silent in Centennial Hall hours earlier as community members criticized the city manager for her handling of a highly-controversial baseball contract.
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“Not often that I wake up in the middle of the night over City issues. But, Bart, I have to ask why you let the public chew me out, call me insubordinate, without standing up for me at all when you directed me to take the Triple Crown terms off tonight’s agenda?” Hinsvark wrote to Kounovsky just after 4 a.m. “And I am not so upset that you let the Engelkens think I am a skunk, but that you left the remainder of my bosses thinking that.”
Hinsvark had just been criticized by Pamela Lane residents Jim and Nancy Engelken during the July 7 city council meeting because of how the Triple Crown contract had been presented as a routine item in her city manager’s report instead of as a public hearing on council’s agenda as some community members had expected.
The Engelkens and other community members opposed the contract changes because they would have brought more baseball traffic in front of their homes and into a nearby park.
At the council meeting, Hinsvark apologized for the lack of a hearing, but she would keep it to herself that the agenda item wasn’t there because the council president had asked that it not be there.
Kounovsky appeared to shrug off the controversy in his response.
“As for Jim and Nancy, their statements speak for themselves,” Kounovsky replied. “There was not a room full of people, only them and I know they tried very hard to pack the room.”
The email exchange, which was one of a few obtained by the Steamboat Today through an open records request, illustrates some of the complexities and challenges Hinsvark has faced in recent weeks working with her seven bosses.
The tension with some council members, evident in the email communications, could ultimately lead to Hinsvark’s departure next month if the council moves ahead with a separation agreement as soon as Friday.
Hinsvark would become the city’s third city manager in seven years who has left amid a rocky relationship with the council.
She has twice survived the recent efforts of two council members to fire her and had been working with an executive leadership coach in recent months.
She has acknowledged that her background has been in finance and that she had things to learn about being a city manager.
But some council support appears to have eroded in recent weeks.
Discussing her future on Thursday, Hinsvark talked about her love of working with city staff and her desire to be an extension of a “city council team.”
"We need to work better as a team, and we have not had that opportunity," Hinsvark said of the council. "What I understand from talking to my counterparts who have done this their entire life is that there’s this Nirvana when these seven people have respect for each other and work together toward a vision that they include you in. There’s this amazing feeling when you can get there. I thought perhaps we could get there."
Hinsvark, who has managed the city since March 2013, appeared to sense some members of the council were again seeking her exit late last month before they met in executive session and directed City Attorney Tony Lettunich to negotiate a potential separation agreement.
The city manager had a request for councilman Scott Ford, who was about to leave for a backcountry fly-fishing trip on July 27.
"While you are out there, ponder why you need to get rid of your hard-working City Manager. Really," Hinsvark wrote in an email to Ford.
Other recent emails show the city manager trying to mend relationships with council members in the wake of missteps, including the Triple Crown controversy and another incident where council members reportedly were angry because Hinsvark had released a vague community summary of the recent internal police investigation before the council had a chance to see it.
Hinsvark told council members she was simply trying to promote a new culture of openness at the police department by allowing a reporter to attend and get a copy of the report.
Councilwoman Sonja Macys, who has twice sought Hinsvark’s resignation in recent months, replied with a long scathing email that said she was "stunned" by Hinsvark’s explanations.
Macys was also critical of Hinsvark’s announcement at the police department meeting that officer Kristin Bantle, who complained about possible discrimination in the department more than a year ago, had been "recommended for termination" because she allegedly lied about drug use on an employment application with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office in 2013.
"Perhaps had you informed council of your intent to share Officer Bantle’s (confidential?) personnel status with the ENTIRE police department, we might have suggested that was a direct violation of the employee’s rights that would likely get us into a lawsuit….," Macys wrote.
Macys concluded her email by telling Hinsvark she thought she had hit “rock bottom” during a previous incident with the council, but "you continue to outdo yourself."
"Burning out managers"
Councilman Scott Myller, a supporter of Hinsvark, said Monday he feels councils in Steamboat and many other places have a track record of "burning out" city managers.
He said he felt a council majority recently swung against Hinsvark because of their dissatisfaction with how she gets information out to the public.
But Myller said he didn’t think it was a problem that couldn’t be fixed with a public information officer or other efforts short of replacing the city manager.
Myller isn’t alone in his support for Hinsvark.
Hours before a majority of the council met behind closed doors last week and directed the city attorney to start negotiating Hinsvark’s possible exit, former city councilwoman Meg Bentley hailed Hinsvark as the best city manager the city has had since 1972.
Bentley criticized the current council for the repeated performance reviews it had conducted of the city manager recently.
"The long-term achievement on this council seems to be uniquely giving reivews of the city manager’s performance," Bentley said. "What kind of micromanaging is that?
"No wonder the word around town is you don’t do anything. You don’t have time to because you’re always evaluating Deb," Bentley continued.
The council will meet behind closed doors at 1:30 p.m. Friday to consider the terms of a possible seperation agreement.
It will ultimatley decide whether to stay the course or part ways with Hinsvark.
Council members still supportive of Hinsvark acknowledged she had recently made some missteps, but they said they don’t want to let go of a “fiscally-brilliant” city manager, who they feel has excelled at balancing budgets and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the city.
Council members who appear ready to let the city manager go have expressed frustrations about her communication with the council and the public and were not satisfied with her recent handling of a police investigation that looked into the conduct of the city’s police chief and deputy police chief.
The potential departure has started conversations in the community not only about Hinsvark’s performance but also about the effectiveness of a structure of a government that has gone through multiple managers in recent years.