Jeff Foster stepped down last month as the City of Moab’s public works director, but the irony is that some residents probably had no idea he was on the job in the first place.
Former Moab City Engineer Rebecca Andrus, who called the city’s decision to hire Foster five years ago one of the best things that’s happened to Moab, said there’s a downside to often working behind the scenes.
“If you do your job effectively, nobody even knows you’re there,” Andrus said. “If he wasn’t doing his job, you would have so many more problems.”
Foster, who joined the city in September 2010, said he asked Mayor Dave Sakrison not to reappoint him. He told the Moab Sun News that he felt he could no longer work under the conditions that management created.
“(Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson) just changed things enough and made things difficult enough that I felt I couldn’t do my job anymore,” he said on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
Davidson said that Foster’s workload increased substantially in recent months, noting that he was inspecting new construction projects on top of his duties managing the city’s water and sewer services, streets and facilities, and parks.
“I felt sorry for him,” Davidson said. “There was just too much to do.”
Both Davidson and Sakrison agreed that Foster’s duties were more than any one individual could handle. In the wake of his resignation, they said the city plans to break up the public works director’s responsibilities and assign them to two different employees.
The process to find Foster’s replacement could take several months. In the meantime, Davidson is now running the public works department.
The mayor and the city manager said that Foster had many opportunities to voice his concerns before he tendered his resignation, but there were no outward signs that he was unhappy, they said.
“If he was, he never gave me any indication of that,” Davidson said.
“If he had some fear, he needed to come talk to me, and he never did,” Sakrison said.
Foster said he has fond memories of his time as Moab’s public works director, and he repeatedly praised the people in his department for their professionalism and their progressive attitudes.
“It’s not that I didn’t like my job,” Foster said. “I loved the people I worked with.”
While he can’t discuss the specifics behind his departure, Foster said he doesn’t appreciate the way that the events leading up to it transpired.
His departure comes after the city moved late last year to eliminate the positions of longtime Community Development Director David Olsen and Economic Development Director Ken Davey.
Davidson has said the city needed to reorganize its previous organizational structure, which appeared to be “kind of jumbled,” and pulled her in different directions. Before the city implemented the changes, Davidson received 11 direct reports from city department heads. But under the reorganization, fewer departments will report directly to her.
Davidson said she has no idea how to respond to concerns that the loss of prominent, longtime city employees has created a climate of “fear and paranoia” among others.
“If there’s a sense that something’s wrong there, I don’t know what it is,” she said.
Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi, who reached out to Foster via email to let him know that she’s sorry he left the city, said she is concerned about what’s going on at city hall.
“I’m keeping an eye on it, and as far as I can tell, there is nothing to impugn (Davidson’s performance),” she said.
If city employees are concerned about something in particular, Ershadi said they need to go through the proper channels, as outlined in the city’s personnel handbook.
“Those policies are there for a reason,” she said. “They are there to protect everyone involved.”
Sakrison said that Davidson is actively working on the goals that the city council laid out for her, including efforts to address Moab’s affordable housing crisis, and the growing number of special events in the community.
The mayor said that although he’s seen “social media crap” about the departures of several longtime department heads, next to no one has raised any concerns or allegations in person.
“I’ve had one person come to my office and say, ‘What the heck is going on?’” he said. “(Davidson) hasn’t had one person.”
Davidson said that she’s at a disadvantage because under the law, she cannot discuss personnel-related issues. As a result, she doesn’t have the opportunity to defend herself when she comes under criticism, so any coverage of those claims may come across as one-sided.
“I think that’s an unreasonable approach, because you’ll never get the full story,” she said.
Davidson said that when she interviewed for the city manager position, council members told her that employee morale was “really low.” After the council offered her the job, she said, she began working to address those concerns.
But Andrus, who moved to the Provo area in 2014 after a family tragedy, said that she was never aware of any grievances from other Moab city employees.
“I never sensed any negativity in morale,” she said.
Quite the contrary, she said: Foster, in particular, always had an upbeat, can-do attitude.
“He had somewhat of a contagious sense of optimism,” she said. “He would always say, ‘We don’t have problems. We have opportunities.’”
If city officials agree that Foster had too much on his plate, Andrus questioned why they are just now moving forward with the process to separate the public works director’s duties, and didn’t do more to ease his load before he resigned. At the same time, she said the move seems to contradict the city’s rationale behind the decision to restructure Olsen’s and Davey’s positions for efficiency’s sake.
“None of it is transparent, and none of it makes sense,” Andrus said. “That’s what’s the most frustrating thing about it … If you have a good reason for this, let us know.”
Andrus called her stint with the city an amazing time in her life. But she thinks that city employees are overburdened to some extent, given the sheer numbers of visitors who often place a strain on the city’s services during the height of Moab’s tourist season.
“You’re dealing with the issues of a city that is effectively 10,000 to 15,000 in the summer, with a staff for a city of 5,000 people,” she said. “We always had to prioritize where we were going, and sometimes, we ran into issues with history, ‘Well, this is the way it’s always been done.’”
Foster said he thinks the city finally addressed one significant infrastructural need by moving forward with its efforts to build a new wastewater treatment plant – a project that he and Andrus had long supported.
“They’ve picked it up and run with it,” Foster said. “That was an important thing that needed to happen.”
He said he’s also glad to see the city investing in its water and sewer services.
“I think they finally realized that they had to start putting money back into infrastructure,” he said.
Andrus said that even as Foster often dealt with some highly complex issues, he never forgot about the people with whom he was working – or the people he was working for.
“He cared about the city, he cared about the employees and he cared about the citizens,” she said.
During his time with the city, Foster helped lead the way on numerous higher-profile projects, facilitating its work on the 500 West road improvement project, and ensuring that it remained on budget, Andrus said.
Andrus also praised Foster for his quick response when a local utility’s contractor accidentally damaged a highly pressurized pipe, causing water to pool up inside a nearby home’s basement the next day.
From that day forward, Foster ensured that the utility kept track of every sewer lateral around, and the problem never repeated itself, Andrus said.
“A lot of stuff that Jeff did, nobody will ever see,” she said.
Foster said he envisioned that he and his wife would be here for the long haul when they moved to Moab in 2010, after he left his 32-year career with the City of Spanish Fork.
“We decided that this is where we wanted to stay for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Today, the Fosters’ house is up for sale, and although they’re considering the possibility of relocating to the warmer climes of St. George, Jeff Foster said they’ll probably stay put if they find something that works for both of them.
“These things leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I still love Moab, and my wife does, too,” he said.
Jeff Foster becomes latest department head to leave city