Steve Powers is the Salem City Manager. The City Manager is hired with the approval of the City Council, then he or she is in charge of all other City of Salem employees.
Someone sent me a copy of Powers' January 2017 Performance Evaluation, noting that some deficiencies noted in the evaluation seemingly were reflected in how Powers has been handling the toxic algae water crisis.
Before discussing those deficiencies, some background info.
News of Powers being hired as Salem's City Manager broke in August 2015, as I wrote about in "Salem has a new City Manager -- Steve Powers." At that time he was the City Administrator of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Since Salem has a strong City Manager/ weak Mayor and City Council form of government, Powers is taking on an important position. I'm hoping, and pretty confident, that he'll be better than our previous City Manager, Linda Norris, who left a lot to be desired.
I say "pretty confident" because a bit of Googling didn't turn up any obvious dirt on Powers.
It doesn't look like any citizen activist bloggers akin to me in Ann Arbor have been ranting about his poor performance as City Manager, like I've done with Linda Norris.
Indeed, it appears that over the past few years Powers has done a competent, though low-key, job as Salem's City Manager.
I've written very little about him, mostly because Powers tends to stay in the City Hall background, even though he has vastly more power than the Mayor and other members of the City Council when it comes to day-to-day operations of the City of Salem.
I did talk some about Powers in a June, 2017 post, "So, who's in charge at the City of Salem?"
In public, City Manager Powers comes across as quite diffident. Meaning, he doesn't speak passionately about policy issues or engage in "rah-rah" talk that could energize the citizenry. So even though Salem has a strong City Manager form of government, so far Powers hasn't lived up to his last name -- using his position as a firm lever of power to change Salem for the better.
So this gets us to the current water quality crisis. Powers and other City officials have come in for well-deserved criticism for not notifying the public right away when test results showed high levels of cyanotoxins in the Salem water system.
The only apology I've heard from Powers has been along the lines of, I'm sorry that people have lost confidence in Salem water. But lots of people also have lost confidence in the ability of City officials to manage the toxic algae problem. In part this is due to Powers' personal style.
As I noted in the above-mentioned post, Powers isn't an eloquent or passionate speaker. He searches for words, speaking so carefully it can sound like he is trying to hide something, whereas most likely this is simply the way he is used to talking in public.
His January 2017 performance evaluation says it was based on "18 written evaluations and 19 individual interviews with your direct reports, the Mayor, members of the City Council, and a small group of leaders from partner organizations."
Here's some excerpts from the Performance Evaluation that bear on how Powers has managed the current water crisis. I've boldfaced especially pertinent feedback to Powers, and added my own comments in red.
One area for development that you might consider is taking a more assertive stance in moving initiatives forward with a greater sense of urgency and attention to detail. You may have a tendency to under-communicate or at least communicate with less urgency or intensity that some around you might expect. Some noted that it is important to “close the loop” in communications and keep people updated on the status and progress of various issues and projects.
This seems right-on. Initially Powers and other City officials did indeed "under-communicate" with the public and failed to keep Salem residents updated on what was happening with water quality test results.
A few respondents said they would appreciate a somewhat more assertive, higher profile posture with the [city] council on your part, specifically, speaking up sooner, keeping the council informed on issues, and offering possible decision choices and their consequences, positive and negative.
The City Council wasn't involved at all by City officials after a test showed a cyanotoxin in the tap water, with councilors learning of the Health Advisory alert only a few hours before it went out to the public.
While you have visited several neighborhood associations during your first year in Salem, it would be beneficial for you to be even more visible and engaged in the community.
The water crisis shows why this would have been desirable. I suspect relatively few people know who the City Manager is, or why his position is so important. So when the water crisis hit, there wasn't a reservoir of good will out there for him to draw on. With Mayor Bennett being on vacation overseas, Powers has become the face of City Hall, and that's a face most people in Salem aren't familiar with.
While many around you recognize your quiet approach, the tendency to listen first, and think before speaking, several said they would like to see you be a little more expansive in your communications, particularly in terms of offering more of your views on things sooner, sharing your vision, and articulating where you stand.
Salem doesn't have its own TV stations, and the Statesman Journal rarely reports on City Hall goings-on absent a big story like the current water crisis. So it's kind of tough for Powers to share his City Manager vision when there aren't many ways to communicate it other than the City of Salem Facebook page, Still, this is a valid criticism.
Bottom line: about a year and a half ago Powers got some constructive feedback on his management approach. I have no idea if he took that feedback from his Performance Evaluation to heart, or if anyone at the City of Salem helped him adjust his communication style, which was the key deficiency identified in the 2017 evaluation.
Regardless, it sure seems like Powers could benefit from some "coaching" as regards the way he communicates both with the public and other City staff. There's a lot to like about his tendency to be hands-off -- except when some hands needed to be guiding the management wheel of the City of Salem, as was the case with the water crisis.