2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Culpepper firing highlights power struggle between mayor and council, council president says

Published: January 17, 2014, 5:08 pm, by Monica Mendoza

Colorado Springs City Council president Keith King said the abrupt firing of legislative assistant George Culpepper by Mayor Steve Bach represents the power struggle in the new form of government.

It will be a topic the City Council discusses at its upcoming retreat, Jan. 29. King said the conflict may have to be resolved with a charter and code review by an outside group.

“When I said that those who seize the power are the ones who have it, I wasn’t talking about the council – the mayor came in and seized all the power,” King said. “If we don’t try to take a stand on some things we have zero power.”

Culpepper was hired Dec. 18 by the City Council to research issues for council’s policy development. He was asked to research marijuana use at the Colorado Springs Airport and made phone calls to one of the airport’s airlines. He was fired Jan. 9.

From nearly his first day as council president, King has been describing how the new form of government has become unbalanced. When voters approved the mayor-council form of government, new rules had to be set up, King said. But in the first two years, the mayor had the upper hand because the city attorney, who is appointed by the mayor, has developed policy that favors the mayor, King said.

In recent months the council has been in a dog fight with City Attorney Chris Melcher, whose last day is Jan. 31, over policy and interpretation of the city’s charter. Council has stated repeatedly that the city attorney’s opinions favor the mayor’s position. Melcher has denied that claim and has said his office does its best to represent the entire city.

But King points to the recent budget process. The City Council approved an ordinance – which is city law — that limits the mayor’s ability to move money. The mayor directed his staff to ignore the city law. Bach said at a December press conference that the budget ordinance violated the charter, making it unlawful, and it intruded on the core functions of the executive branch. Colorado case law backs him up, he said. Melcher and three other deputy attorneys advised council not to change the budget process.

King said the budget process was complex and may not have resonated with residents. But the Culpepper case has “cracked that open – the council has so little power compared to the mayor” he said.