2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Proposed charter amendment opens wound over firing

Published: June 12, 2014, 4:55 pm, by Monica Mendoza

When former Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera appeared this week before City Council to talk about a charter change that would give council the ability to hire and fire its own staff, it opened a not-so old wound.

Rivera told the council that he was proposing a charter change because of what happened to in January to the council’s legislative assistant, George Culpepper.

Culpepper was fired Jan. 9 by Mayor Steve Bach after Culpepper called Alaska Airlines asking questions about marijuana and the airline’s policy for research related to a city ban on marijuana. According to the termination notice to Culpepper from the city’s human resources director, the call to the airlines was an improper act and “so egregious, and so seriously damaging to the airport’s relationship with Alaska Airlines and other potential airlines serving the community, that termination is warranted.”

“I felt for that young guy,” Rivera said. “He was doing exactly what he was told to do.”

Bach described the Culpepper incident this week as “ugly.” But he said he had no choice in the matter. He said he asked City Council president Keith King and vice president Merv Bennett to discipline Culpepper, saying that the city’s human resource director said the incident of calling Alaska Airlines reflected negatively on the city and could not go unchecked.

“The refused,” Bach said earlier this week.

“Garbage,” King said. That never happened, he said. Council member Don Knight said Bach asked King to fire Culpepper. But King, as did the rest of the council, did not believe Culpepper had done anything wrong.

“He told Keith, you fire him or I will,” Knight said. “It was not a discipline issue.”

Almost immediately after the incident the council began discussing a need to change the city’s charter. Currently, the charter says the mayor oversees all city employees, even those who answer to the city council, and can hire and fire all city employees. Council members, in their retreat, discussed a possible November ballot question.

Bach wants to head off a proposed charter amendment with a Memo of Understanding between the executive and legislative branches, which would outline protocol and due process in the event that an employee should be disciplined. His chief concern, he said, is the cost of adding a question on the November ballot – which could be $465,000.

The city’s budget has about $250,000 set aside for special elections. The council would need to find a way to pay for the remaining cost, he said.

“The MOU would apply to all city employees,” Bach said, “including those in the executive branch who could potentially obstruct City Council operations.”

King is not sold on the MOU idea and does not believe it would protect city council employees.

“I want to make sure our employees are fully protected,” King said. “I don’t know if we can do that with an MOU.”

Knight said one option is to wait until the April city election and then, he said, there would be no additional cost. But council is moving forward with a proposed charter amendment.

“I’m all for it going to a vote,” he said.  “The city attorney has been working on this.”