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Mayor Steve Bach throws a million dollars at resignees, ‘retirees’ and other exiting employees

Take the money and run

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City Attorney Pat Kelly was the first to go, then Police Chief Richard Myers, who was followed by Human Resources Director Ann Crossey, Budget Director Lisa Bigelow and Economic Vitality Chief Steve Cox. That's five high-profile department heads who, according to Colorado Springs city government, chose to retire between August 2011 and July 2012.

The timing makes for quite a coincidence, especially given that Mayor Steve Bach took office in June 2011. But it's no more striking than one other aspect of their departures: that each of these "retirees" was also given a severance package.

In fact, severance payouts for the five together exceeded $350,000. Add in extended health care coverage and payouts for sick leave, and the figure increases to nearly $543,600. With vacation pay (required by law), it's about $700,650.

All told, city documents reveal that Mayor Steve Bach has paid nearly $750,000 in severance — a figure that equates to the salaries of 16 patrol officers — to 23 exiting city workers, many of them managers. The total payout rises to more than $1 million if extended health benefits and sick-leave payouts are added, and more than $1.35 million including vacation payouts.

The Independent asked Bach via e-mail last week why he's shed so many top managers in less than two years; why this has been a good use of taxpayer money; why he was willing to sacrifice so much institutional knowledge; and why the city labeled many departures as "retirements" but paid severance anyway.

City spokesperson Julie Smith sent a one-sentence reply: "The mayor does not have any comment on these questions."

The deals

Most recently, on March 22, Bach sent Airport Director Mark Earle packing. Bach said in a March 28 interview with KVOR radio that he and Earle weren't "philosophically aligned" on marketing the airport, "and Mark offered that if I wanted to go a different way on the marketing, he would respect that, and if so desired, he would withdraw."

Earle will serve as "senior advisor - airport and aviation affairs" through the calendar year, during which he will keep his annual base pay rate of $165,899.

While philosophical differences haven't come up as often as "retirements," at least one other departure has been chalked up to them. In early 2012, Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy Johnson, who'd also served as assistant city manager, resigned. As Bach's Chief of Staff Laura Neumann said at the time: "As with any transition in executive leadership, there are really good people ... talented, high performers that may not agree with the new direction or have the right chemistry with the new regime." Johnson was paid $34,074 in severance, plus another $7,187 in other benefits, not including vacation pay.

But even one who seemingly had the right chemistry was paid to leave. Cox served as Bach's first chief of staff, then headed up the city's Economic Vitality department. Bach and Cox, a former fire chief, were connected at the hip, especially during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Then suddenly, on July 18, Cox "retired" and walked away with $148,269 in severance pay and other benefits — plus a $42,276 vacation payout. (Cox has also kept a "consulting" arrangement with the mayor since then.)

It's all part of the $1,040,741 Bach has used to grease the exits of certain people. That figure covers $747,745 in severance pay, $45,315 for health insurance and $247,681 for unused sick pay. It doesn't cover another roughly $327,000 in vacation pay.

The only employee to fight an exit is former Finance Director Terri Velasquez, who's suing over her 2011 dismissal.

To see all 24 employee separation packages for this time period, click here.

Performance or politics

Jim Mullen, the Springs' city manager from 1996 to 2002, says "nothing positive" comes from Bach's severance policy. Mullen, who's served as a municipal manager in six jurisdictions, says he never used severance pay to get rid of an employee. But, he adds, "That's what 'strong mayors' do.

"Their priority is their agenda; it's not the agenda of the community or the City Council, and I think that's definitely the case here," Mullen says. "If someone isn't toeing the line for Steve Bach or Steve Bach's team, anyone who shows disloyalty or lack of total commitment, that person is put on a list and pretty soon they're gone."

Mullen likens Bach to big-city mayors. But in, say, Chicago and other top-tier cities, employees are protected from political retribution by civil service policies or laws; here, they're not.

"The huge loss of experience and leadership, you can't put a price tag on that," Mullen says. "Great mistakes result from those kinds of decisions when experienced staff are replaced."

Former Councilor Richard Skorman, who ran against Bach for mayor, agrees the city has lost a lot in two years. "You have a mostly new Council and you don't have institutional history there," he says. "You have very few leaders, department heads who have been there and understood the decisions of the past."

Mullen says those who remain fear for their jobs, so they avoid taking risks and don't offer new ideas. Meantime, he adds, the city gets a reputation. "It's absolutely crushing in terms of the ability of the city to attract real quality professional managers to their city who will stay around for a long time and provide the kind of services that some of our long-term employees have."

But while Skorman acknowledges Bach's discharge methods can "create an atmosphere [where] people are afraid they may be next," house-cleanings do have an upside.

"The advantage is that you have your own staff that you hand-picked, that you have interviewed and they understand what your goals are," Skorman says.

Keeping them secret

The Independent wanted to report details of the severance agreements, but the city refused to release them, claiming they're part of the employees' personnel files.

Actually, they're not, says media attorney Steven D. Zansberg of Denver.

"Severance agreements between a government entity and a (former) public employee are public records and are not part of the employee's 'personnel file,'" he writes via e-mail. Personnel files are defined in the law, he says, as containing only personal demographic information like phone numbers and personal bank account information.

Zansberg also cites a 1998 Colorado Attorney General's opinion that backs up his contention. "A final written settlement agreement that is fully executed between a state institution, agency, or political subdivision, and an employee or other third party as a result of alternative dispute resolution, is subject to the Open Records Act," then-Attorney General Gale Norton wrote in a case that arose from the Board of Regents.

First Amendment Attorney Kevin M. Goldberg of Washington, D.C., agrees and cites numerous cases that substantiate Zansberg's opinion.

zubeck@csindy.com

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