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Medford: Envy of other cities?

In looking to the future, Medford City Manager Brian Sjothun believes City Hall needs to assess itself before soliciting community input.

"We can't go out to the community and ask you what you want Medford to become until we understand as an organization what we need to become in order to serve the community," Sjothun said Monday at a Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum gathering at Rogue Valley Country Club.

Sjothun expects the city will engage the community later this fall or early winter to learn what residents want.

The city manager, who previously oversaw Medford Parks and Recreation, said collaboration between departments is essential to efficient performance.

"Our departments would work in silos, they wouldn't know what the other one was doing," Sjothun said. "We're going to break down those silos and work better amongst ourselves. We will not be pitted against each other. I inherited a culture that for a long time everyone was against each other. I called it management by Darwinism, because only the strong survived."

He said it was going to take time to build trust where animosity often prevailed.

Sjothun said budget cycle blinders have hindered long-term thinking.

"We live a world of two years, that's our budget cycle," he said. "We need to get out of that thinking. We need to start thinking six, 10 years in advance."

As Medford grows, decisions or initiatives will ripple beyond City Hall, and even the city limits.

"There are so many times we don't take the time to really think about how that's going to impact other parts of private business, non-profits or even other municipalities," Sjothun said.

Retirement has and will lead to more turnover among the city's 450 employees. Medford's geographical isolation adds to the cost of staff development.

"It's very expensive to send our staff, including our department heads, outside the area to get the type of training we need," Sjothun said.

The answer, he suggested, is an internal training and leadership program.

"We are going to have a glut of retirements in the next five years, and we need to be able to provide self-development opportunities for our staff — present, and those that come in — for them to be able to move up in our organization."

Sjothun said that the city has to build better relationships.

"We all know that potentially, the city of Medford may not have been the greatest partner to all of you," he said. "I can tell you that time has changed, the minute I stepped in the door as city manager. We need to figure out what you need, and then we need to either help provide it to you, or get out of the way."

Sjothun said that homelessness and other problems are not something the city or county, ACCESS or other nonprofits can solve alone.

"It's going to take everybody to solve the problems we are having," he said.

Sjothun, who has lived in Medford for 13 years, said he hopes to change how people view the region.

"We need to change people's perceptions," he said. "I would love to see Medford be what is called a leading-edge community. That we become a destination community, where the downtown is vibrant, the businesses are thriving as much as they can."

Along with education and recreation opportunities, he wants Medford to be a model for other cities.

"I don't know how many times in a week I used to hear, 'Why can't we be like Bend?'" Sjothun said. "I hope to be the city manager for a long time, and when I'm done I hope people are going, 'Why can't we be like Medford?'"

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler said the city has accomplished much in the past year, but there is work to be done.

"We have some issues," Wheeler said. "We'd like to say we have everything figured out and we're handling it all, and I think we are. But there are things that just happen, and we need to be prepared as a city to manage. I want to keep this a city that is livable and that our kids would want to come back to."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.