A conversation with Brian Sjothun, Medford’s city manager.
In September 2016 Brian Sjothun was sworn in as Medford city manager. Before taking the lead, Sjothun spent 12 years as the city’s parks and recreation director. Sjothun’s predecessor, Eric Swanson had been criticized for his management style.
Sjothun reflects on his new position, city management and visioning the future of Medford.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OB: Was the transition from Parks and Recreation lead to City Manager challenging?
Sjothun: It was a bit easier as I had already been a part of the organization for over 12 years. The biggest change was moving from a singular focus with Parks and Recreation to a global for the entire organization. There are way more moving parts in being a City Manager then with being a department director.
OB: You said in a previous interview that you were preparing for this role for four years. Did you always know you would hold this position?
Sjothun: I had reached a point in my career where I needed to look at preparing myself for either the next step or moving to a larger Parks and Recreation Department. I started to expand my reading, training and network in order to help me with both my personal and professional growth. I also started to feel confident that my skill set could provide a different leadership from what was being provided and knew if provided an opportunity I needed to be ready for the challenge.
OB: There was a bit of contention with the last city manager and micro-management of the council. What’s your take on the city manager’s role?
Sjothun: Managing relationships and expectations. The City Manager is to provide guidance to the department on items that the Council would like to see brought forward for policy decisions. Staff is to provide as much information as possible and let the Council set the policy instead of the other way around. We have to develop relationships between the Council and our management team and have a better understanding of what is needed from each side in order to move the community forward.
OB: Now that you’ve been in the role for almost a year, are you noticing a change in the relationship?
Sjothun: I believe that the Council is having better and more civil discussions about issues. There are a varying opinions on this Council and that is fine, as long as we can all work professionally together. I think we’re headed in the right direction.
OB: What changes have you implemented so far?
Sjothun: We changed some major items related to the budget process and involving the Budget Committee early in the process. This allowed for a much better discussion and allocation of resources that will meet the needs of the community for the next two years.
I’ve also tried to create a more collaborative environment from within the City Manager’s office with the departments and Council. Improving communication was a huge need and some of that has been filled with my weekly update to the Mayor and Council. I try to provide them as much information as possible on upcoming items along with the proper staff member to contact for clarification.
OB: One of the first things you did was create a community relations role. Why was that important?
Sjothun: We need to craft our message and not let the media do that for us. We also need to inform citizens and business owners of items that will possibly impact their lives and to be proactive in getting that information out there.
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OB: What are your goals for Medford?
Sjothun: To work with the Council, business leaders, community groups and staff in creating a great place to live, work and play.
OB: Medford struggles with the lack of a “cool factor.” Do you consider this a problem?
With a world-class sports park facility and wineries around the region, I don’t get that we’re not “cool.” However, I believe that improving our downtown by developing housing and more opportunities for entertainment will help with us becoming more cool.
I believe that there is a perception that Medford and southern Oregon does not have a lot to offer in comparison to other metro regions. However, having lived here for just over 13 years now I can attest that this region has a lot to offer that the other more crowded and expensive areas of the state do not have.
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OB: What are your top priorities?
Sjothun: Creating a vision for what Medford is going to become over the next 20-35 years. First we need to create a vision with the Mayor and Council on what our internal vision and core values are. From there, we need to engage the community and business partners on what they would like to see Medford become. After that, what role does the City play in this community vision and begin implementation. It simply can’t be one person or a small group that creates this vision. I have been impressed with what other communities have done to create such a vision and we’re working on moving in that direction.