The Salem City Manager heads up an organization with over 1,100 employees and a $466 million budget. In the private sector, a CEO with these responsibilities likely would earn $1 million a year, or thereabouts.
Steve Powers' annual salary, though, must be in the neighborhood of $176,000. (That's what his predecessor, Linda Norris, was slated to earn in 2015.)
So Powers has a big job that pays comparatively little, pretty typical for government work. Yet he's accomplished the goal he set out at age 20: become a City Manager.
That's what Powers said at last Friday's Salem City Club talk, "The Fine Art of City Management."
When I heard that, I thought, Wow. How many 20 year olds are able to successfully predict what they'll be doing when they're 50'ish? And how many set their sights on being a City Manager?
Given this, you might think that Powers possesses a healthy supply of Nerdness.
Indeed, he comes across as a serious guy who chooses his words carefully. He also had renamed his talk "The Fine Art and Science of City Management." However, I liked his sense of humor -- which is more striking because his jokes come as a surprise, spoken in the same studious manner, yet with an appealing dry wit.
For example, Powers told us that his previous job was the City Administrator of Ann Arbor, Michigan, "where Bernie Sanders is viewed as a moderate."
Now he's in Salem, a liberal-leaning city, but not as progressive as university town Ann Arbor, for sure.
A friend who did some research on this told me that the Ann Arbor City Council is dominated by folks on the left side of the political spectrum, whereas the Salem City Council leans decidedly to the right, given the Chamber of Commerce's ability to swing/buy elections through large PAC (political action committee) contributions to conservative candidates.
Likely this is part of the reason City Manager Powers was careful to point out that his job is to implement priorities set by the Mayor and the other eight members of the City Council, not to establish them.
He's got a really tough job. Powers spoke about how he has to relate to the citizenry, to those 1,100 City of Salem employees he manages, and to the City Council -- which essentially is his board of directors. "I can be fired at any council meeting," Powers said.
I came away impressed with his dedication, sincerity, and obvious commitment to public service (the past 30 years, he's been working for local governments).
Yeah, it was kind of corny, and reminded me of my days in the Boy Scouts, but I enjoyed when Powers read aloud the Code of Ethics for the association of city management types he belongs to, prefacing it with "this is important." I also liked it when he told the City Club audience, albeit in an implied fashion rather than explicitly, that he'd choose those ethics over a city council instruction to do something he didn't think was proper.
When he came to Salem last year, Powers said "I'm here to help Salem become the best city in the United States." During the Q&A part of his talk, he responded to a City Club member who asked how this was going to happen. I wasn't wildly excited about his answer, but it probably was about all he could say.
Powers said that the City's fiscal health has to continue. "A broke city can't be best." He wants the City of Salem to meet citizens' expectations, and to be open to working with others.
So I got the impression that Powers isn't a City Manager who will actively push for a certain vision of what Salem should become. At least, not yet. In Ann Arbor he worked with a liberal community that was represented by liberal city councilors. Here, he's got a liberal-leaning citizenry who, at the moment, are represented by a majority of conservative city councilors.
(That could change on May 17 if Carole Smith were to be elected Mayor, and Cara Kaser, Matt Ausec, and Sally Cook were elected as city councilors; then progressives would have a 5-4 majority -- those four plus Tom Andersen.)
Another questioner asked about the difference between "communication" and "engagement." Powers gave a good answer, agreeing that these aren't at all the same. This is one of my pet peeves about how high-ranking City officials have acted before Powers came to town.
Their idea of reaching out to citizens was to communicate an already-decided-on course of action, like building a new police facility next to Mirror Pond on the Civic Center campus. They never engaged the Salem community in planning for the police facility, so were surprised when there was so much resistance to plans people had never heard about, or been involved in.
Powers said that City staff would be looking at agencies that already do a good job of engaging the public, like the Parks Department, using their approaches as a model for the rest of city government. Smart move. I took part in the planning process for Minto Brown Island Park and found it wonderfully clear, productive, and transparent.
Steve Powers has only been in Salem for about six months.
He seems to be making some positive changes at City Hall. I came away from his City Club talk feeling like this town is fortunate to have him managing city government. Yet I also felt a bit frustrated that he couldn't give a rousing speech that had people applauding specific proposals for making Salem a more livable and vibrant community.
Too early for that? Sure.
Powers can't be criticized for lacking a vision of what this town can become, since Salemians haven't been able to come up with such a vision themselves. Thus City government, along with others, has been muddling along, doing this and doing that, which doesn't add up to a coherent, collaborative, compelling picture of Salem 2025 -- or whatever we want to call it.
Hopefully this will change. The key question, both for downtown and the entire city, is "Why can't Salem get its act together?" We've all got to answer this... together. Steve Powers can help, but he's just one person. It takes a village, as they say.
Update: I've heard that Powers is an avid bicyclist. It was good to hear him say, in response to a question about biking, walking, and mass transit: "To be a city businesses and people choose, we need to provide transportation options beyond the single-person automobile."
I also was pleased to hear Powers report that the City of Salem is beginning to get off using Urban Renewal funds for the capital maintenance of downtown parking garages. This has been an inappropriate use of Urban Renewal money for quite a while. The City does a poor job of maintaining what it owns (just look at how City Hall is falling apart). Maintenance should be budgeted for like any competent business or person would do, not deferred or paid with Urban Renewal funds.