Durango City Council named a new finalist for the permanent city manager position, Interim City Manager Amber Blake, after a divided vote Thursday.
Durango is shopping for a city manager after former manager Ron LeBlanc left in October. Councilors named two finalists in July, when a new application by Blake prompted them to take a fresh look at the candidate pool. Since then, one finalist, Kevin Knutson, has accepted another job. Blake has joined Jose Madrigal from Texas as a finalist, but council was divided over her qualifications.
“Our consulting firm, Slavin Management, advised us to only name finalists that we were willing to hire,” said Councilor Barbara Noseworthy, who voted against Blake’s nomination. “I don’t believe she, right now, has the experience or expertise to be the city manager.”
During a special session, Mayor Dean Brookie and councilors Melissa Youssef and Chris Bettin voted in favor of Blake’s nomination. Noseworthy voted no, and Mayor Pro Tem Kim Baxter abstained. Councilors also considered a candidate who will not move forward in the hiring process.
Baxter said she was caught between conflicting priorities.
“I didn’t feel Amber was qualified, so I couldn’t say yes,” she said. “We’ve lost one finalist already, and I wasn’t certain it was good for the community to only have one finalist to meet. I couldn’t really say no, either.”
The next step in the hiring process is community vetting. But the timing of Blake’s application, which was announced the day the two initial finalists were announced, disrupted the forward movement for other candidates. Councilors could not move initial finalists to that step until they had fully considered Blake and re-examined the candidate pool.
“I wish we’d done this weeks ago,” Baxter said. “We probably would not have lost Kevin to a job offer if we had done this in a reasonable time frame.”
Blake did not respond to requests for comment about the timing of her application or her nomination as a finalist.
Bettin supported Blake’s nomination, saying she has experience working unique Colorado laws, like the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, and she understands Durango and its economy. He highlighted her management during the pandemic and ensuing financial crisis, as well as the city’s response to the alleged fraud by former Finance Director Julie Brown.
“The way she’s brought us out of that situation, even as it still rages, is something I don’t know that we would have expected out of even somebody who had much more experience than she does,” Bettin said. “Amber has done an exceptional job, given the circumstances she inherited, especially relative to the financial irregularities that were discovered by her and by her team.”
Brookie and Youssef did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Noseworthy said she wants a candidate with experience with financial management, strategic plans, the private sector, and iscal and environmental resiliency.
Blake falls short, particularly with handling the budget, Noseworthy said.
Baxter was concerned about Blake’s experience. The city will need strong leadership, especially as it prepares for future challenges like affordable housing, she said. Most of Blake’s mid- to upper-level career comes from working in the Durango municipal government under LeBlanc, who left an error-ridden city budget.
While Blake knows the community and is an “awesome” learner, she does not have the experience and certifications of other candidates, Baxter said.
“I want a manager that can lead. Not one that’s learning as they’re going,” Baxter said.