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Under the microscope

Medford city councilors have criticized City Manager Eric Swanson for treating one councilor “abusively” and for a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude, according to a job review obtained by the Mail Tribune.

“I have these warning bells inside of me that I and the council are being managed by Eric,” one councilor wrote. “As for motivating the work force, intimidation always works wonders.”

The reviews were not all negative, however, with numerous positive remarks throughout the documents.

After filing a public records request, the Mail Tribune obtained two of Swanson’s evaluations from the council and one that he filled out for himself. In the most recent council evaluation spanning the period from June 2013 to June 2014, the criticisms were particularly pointed.

The city initially refused to provide the evaluations, but District Attorney Beth Heckert ordered it to turn them over to the newspaper based on public records law. However, she allowed the names of the individual councilors who made the comments to be kept confidential.

Councilors said Swanson has made strides in improving his community outreach but criticized him for failing to react more quickly and avoid damage in relations with community organizations, including the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.

“However, the scars remain,” a councilor wrote. “It should not have taken a near meltdown to get Eric to simply communicate.”

The nature of the issue with the Chamber was not specified in the evaluation.

Swanson also received many good reviews for his work during his two years in office.

“Very happy with Eric’s leadership style,” one councilor wrote. “Plus I feel there is a different tone around the city and with the employees. Everyone seems more relaxed.”

Councilors cited an improved relationship with Jackson County and applauded Swanson’s ability to keep multiple projects on track, including expansion of U.S. Cellular Community Park and plans for new fire stations and a new police station.

Councilor Daniel Bunn said Monday in an interview that the overall opinion of Swanson by the council is favorable, despite some areas of concern.

“Generally he’s taking the city in a good direction,” Bunn said. “Clearly, there are areas of improvement that are needed.”

As an indication of its support, the council plans to renew Swanson’s employment contract, Bunn said. Swanson receives a base salary of $145,000 annually, but a deferred compensation account and retirement package bring the total to $168,891. In addition he receives health insurance and other benefits.

If the council as a whole felt Swanson’s performance was falling far short, Bunn said, it would have taken decisive action.

“We can fire him on any day, and we could do that,” he said. “But we haven’t.”

Swanson, in his own self-evaluation, notes improving relations with Jackson County and with the community. He said the 2014-2019 Strategic Plan he promoted will help chart the goals of the city into the future.

Swanson said he’s dealt with tough issues during his two years with the city, particularly over a controversial proposal to consolidate Medford's fire department with Fire District 3, an idea that ultimately was dropped.

“At the end of the day, we went in the direction the council agreed upon,” Swanson said in an interview with the Mail Tribune Monday.

Despite progress being made to address the issues raised in the evaluations, Swanson said there have been “perceptual” issues raised with his leadership style, including the suggestion that he was “abusive” with a councilor.

“It is never my intent to be abusive,” he said. “I can be passionate about an issue and sometimes that can be perceived as more than it is. I think I bring a certain amount of passion to the job, but it is something I have to be aware of.”

Swanson said he has reached out to the Chamber and other organizations, but said the city is involved in so many projects that it is difficult to make everyone happy.

“The chamber of commerce is one part of the community, and we reach out and hear their concerns,” he said. “Again they’re one part of the community, and we represent the entire community.”

Swanson was criticized by some councilors for firing former fire Chief Dave Bierwiler, followed by the termination of Doug Detling as human resources director.

“To me, this has been managed as a my way or the highway process from the get go, resulting in two high-level officials who are no longer employed by the city,” one councilor wrote.

“It’s also my perspective that a message has been delivered loud and clear through department head changes (that) one will adjust to the city manager’s way of thinking or they won’t be long for employment with the city of Medford,” a councilor wrote in another section.

Swanson said he doesn’t believe he has a domineering attitude with the community, the council or city employees.

“I don’t think if you led in that way, anything would be accomplished,” he said. “Sometimes you deal with issues that can be heated at times.”

Swanson got mixed reviews on his communication style.

One councilor wrote, “Communication with me as an individual council member is markedly diminished — the perception is that the city manager attempts to ‘manage’ the council through council officers rather than one-on-one with the individual council members. In one instance previously discussed, a council member complained of being treated abusively when asking questions.”

A self-identified new council member, however, gave Swanson high marks for communicating with him effectively and providing support as he was learning his new job.

Councilors frequently complained that they received information about city business from media sources rather than from Swanson.

One councilor also criticized “unnecessary” or “inappropriate” executive sessions.

Councilor Eli Matthews said Monday the performance evaluations include praise for Swanson but also many criticisms.

“It’s a mixed bag,” he said.

Matthews had praise for the work Swanson has undertaken and said he believes the city is engaged in many projects that will make Medford a better place.

Councilors, who volunteer their time, actually spend little time at City Hall, he noted, and some may feel disengaged at times.

“In years past, many have questioned, ‘Who’s steering the ship. Who’s making the decisions?’ ” Matthews said.

While those types of questions will come up, Matthews said, councilors need to look at what is being accomplished, particularly under Swanson’s watch.

While Matthews supports Swanson, other councilors are still not sure about the city manager.

“I have been and remain seriously on the fence as to whether Eric is the best fit for the city of Medford,” one councilor wrote in his evaluation.​

 Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Medford City Manager Eric Swanson has come in for praise and criticism in employment evaluations obtained by the Mail Tribune. Mail Tribune/file photo