Gresham city manager finalists meet for public forum
The two finalists vying to become the next Gresham City Manager took part in a virtual public forum to answer questions posed by community members.
Bryan Montgomery and Ann Ober both spoke with forum moderator Mayor Travis Stovall Monday evening, Jan. 11, to discuss their approach to managing city staff, how they would take on the budget crisis, ideas around improving diversity and more.
Last year, a pool of more than 64 candidates applied for the role after it was vacated in June upon the retirement of long-time City Manager Erik Kvarsten. While Gresham Council began the search for a permanent replacement, two interim managers were hired to bridge the gap.
The Gresham City Manager serves as the chief executive officer of the city, overseeing staff and departments while carrying out the direction of council.
Both Montgomery and Ober are qualified as candidates, with years of experience managing cities. At the conclusion of the forum those watching were able to fill out a survey to share their thoughts with council, who plan on making a selection within the coming weeks.
Montgomery has been city manager of Oakley, Calif., since 2005. His public administration career began in 1994 when he joined the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, as the assistant city manager. He then transitioned to Rupert, Idaho, as city administrator for one and a half years.
"I believe Gresham's best days are ahead," Montgomery said. "It is a challenge that excites me and I want to be a part of the solution. The foundation (in Gresham) is strong, but I can step in and add to it."
His approach to leading a city is similar to how businesses are run. He likened community members to shareholders, and that as manager his role would be to listen to what the citizens want and get a "return on investment."
Some of his focuses include public safety, parks, road maintenance, and overall planning. He also stressed that a city manager can't act like a politician, and instead only work as a buffer between elected leaders and city staff.
Montgomery said that the first step to improving inclusivity and diversity is to understand and accept any systemic issues that may be in place.
"As a white male it is easy for me to claim where we are as a society, but there is a reality of a systemic problem where certain people haven't felt welcome or felt mistreated," he said. "This isn't going to fix itself."
In Oakley, Calif., Montgomery and his team utilized an award-winning program called "You, Me, We = Oakley." It was about ensuring people from different backgrounds all had a place at the table and were able to communicate effectively. Oakley has a large portion of the community who speak Spanish as a first language, and improving communication was a key initiative in the program.
"Creating a level of respect no matter where somebody is from," Montgomery said. "Bringing people together to talk about our differences and frustrations in a polite way — but focusing on the problems in the community and not each other."
For Gresham's financial difficulties, which include a $13.3 million budget gap caused in large part by one of the lowest permanent tax rates in the state, Montgomery said the key is to have frank conversations with the community.
"We need to live within our means, even if it means making some painful decisions," he said.
Ober has been the city manager of Milwaukie since 2016. She began her local government career in 2005 when she was hired by Salt Lake County, Utah. For more than six years, she worked in community relations, diversity affairs, environmental policy and government affairs. She then shifted to director of the public services administrative division director for the Salt Lake City Corp, Utah. That was followed by serving as senior policy advisor and government affairs director for Park City Municipal, Utah.
"Gresham is a large community full of people who aren't pretentious," Ober said. "This is a place where people help each other even when they don't have a whole lot for themselves."
She described the city manager role as overseeing a large chessboard. At times she will have to step in to fill gaps and support people in need of guidance, but when things are working smoothly she lets staff have autonomy. Ober also spoke to the importance of checking in with the community.
"There is always a hard thing that is happening and I jump in and help with those things," she said.
For improving diversity and inclusivity, she spoke to the need for government to undue the mistakes of the past. It has been a goal in Milwaukee this past year, and Ober spoke about how powerful connecting with different groups and people can be. She said that sending a personal email goes a long way.
"People want to come to the table and participate in these conversations," Ober said, adding it has to be authentic.
For Gresham's financial difficulties, she spoke about the bevy of ways to move forward —passing fees, special districts, new tax rates, levees, grants and more. But it depends on what the community and council want for Gresham.
"We have to be honest about what is important and figure out the structure," Ober said. "There are a lot of different tools."
Ober also worked on improving community engagement in Milwaukee. One thing she implemented was dinner and babysitting during city meetings, as it allowed more people to contributed in the conversations.
"I am excited about this opportunity, it has been fun for me," Ober said.
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