- Matthew Schniper
- A fire station bears Anstine's name.
As four cops were hustled, unnoticed, from the Fountain Police Department due to what they allege was discrimination, a high-profile city official also made a mysterious exit, taking a city gift of $300,000 with him.
Although longtime Fire Chief Darin Anstine's May 25 departure was low-key, it caught residents' attention when, within weeks of his so-called retirement, he was named chief of nearby Stratmoor Hills Fire Department.
"I didn't start really getting involved until I found out he was retiring, and then he was hired at Stratmoor," says long-time Fountain resident Dawn Harnick. "I said, 'Huh? That doesn't make sense.' It didn't feel right."
Anstine, 53, who served for 32 years, nearly 20 years as chief, is a popular figure. A fire station bears his name, and he's a regular at local events such as parades and fundraisers.
"Darin loves this community," resident Penny Cimino says. "He lives here. You see him at the grocery store."
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Cimino, Harnick and others affiliated with a new activist group called Fountain – A Place I Call Home began to suspect Public Safety Director and Police Chief Chris Heberer engineered Anstine's departure, though Heberer says it was Anstine's idea, and he just helped him wrangle the money.
But it doesn't end there. Anstine's departure triggered City Council in April to begin looking at a city charter change. Backed by Heberer, the change would remove a mandate that fire and police chiefs live in Fountain — a change that was already rejected by voters in November 2014.
The idea has since been put on ice, Mayor Gabriel Ortega says. "The current council is not seeking voter approval for a change in language," Ortega tells the Independent via email. "As for future councils that would be pure speculation."
But the Anstine episode has given rise to questions among residents that go well beyond the exit deal and include city salaries, take-home vehicles, residency of other city workers and transparency of city government.
Anstine won't discuss his departure other than to say it wasn't performance-related. The city won't discuss it either. The "retirement agreement" contains confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses.
But the agreement itself is telling. It states, "The City and Employee agree to resolve amicably all issues between them in accordance with and in consideration of the terms of this Agreement." It also says the purpose of the agreement "is to settle all issues relating to [Anstine's] employment and retirement" with the city agreeing to pay $300,000 into Anstine's Fire & Police Pension Association of Colorado retirement account. And, the city agreed to pay his health insurance premiums for 10 years, which the document called a "deviation from the City of Fountain Employee Handbook."
Anstine reported to City Manager Scott Trainor for years until Chris Heberer, a former Military Police battalion commander at Fort Carson who was hired in 2015 as Fountain's police chief, was promoted to the new position of director of public safety in March 2016.
Heberer tells the Indy that Anstine was looking to leave. "I talked a long time to Darin about his decision to retire," he says in an interview. "Darin worked for me for two years. Darin came to me and said, 'I'm thinking about retiring. What do you think?' I said, 'I just want you to be happy. I'd say for you to go out on your own terms. You're welcome to stay. If you want to retire, put it in writing, and I'll see what I can do for you.' Which I did."
Anstine signed the agreement on Jan. 22.
On March 13, City Council approved the agreement as a consent item labeled as, "A Resolution Authorizing The Mayor To Sign A Retirement Agreement Between The City Of Fountain And Fire Chief Darin Anstine," which stated that the city and Anstine "are parting on amicable and friendly terms."
The agenda's backup information states that Anstine didn't have an option to contribute to his retirement fund in his early work years so the agreement "will allow Mr. Anstine to purchase years of service." The $300,000 figure wasn't cited anywhere, except in the agreement itself, which was not included in backup information accessible to the public.
- Courtesy City of Fountain
- City Manager Scott Trainor, left, and Mayor Gabriel Ortega with Chief Darin Anstine when he retired.
In fact, the item was one of six on the "routine" consent agenda, as the mayor called it, which he said would be approved without discussion, unless a councilor specifically asked to remove it for later discussion. One item was pulled off — rescheduling of a Council meeting. It took only two minutes in a meeting that spanned nearly two hours for Ortega to announce the consent agenda and get a unanimous vote.
Mayor Pro Tem Phil Thomas signed the agreement on March 20.
After seeking funding for a battalion chief for several years, Anstine got the OK and in February 2016 Michael Orr was hired. Orr's service at Fort Carson as a firefighter overlapped Heberer's time with the military police at the post. Orr was hired without competing for the job, and Anstine and Heberer "recruited" him "based on his credentials and the immediate need" for a battalion chief, the city Human Resources Department says.
Heberer tells the Indy that Anstine hired Orr. Asked about that, Anstine declined to comment.
After Anstine left, Heberer promoted Orr to interim fire chief, but his advancement to permanent chief would collide with the city charter residency provision, because Orr lives in Penrose, a 40-mile drive away (though Heberer, oddly, argues the distance is only 30 miles "as the crow flies"). Orr didn't respond to a request for comment.
The chief job posting now notes the new chief must move to Fountain within six months of being hired.
Heberer, who bought his Fountain home in March 2015, argues for erasing the residency requirement, saying fire and police chiefs, and their families, could be targeted by disgruntled employees or citizens. (It's not clear why he thinks living in another city would prevent this.) He said a Fort Carson employee who didn't like him shot up his Colorado Springs home some years back.
The Indy found that residency rules vary. Wheat Ridge, Brighton (which have similar populations) and Grand Junction (a non-Front Range example) require only the city managers to live within their cities, but Pueblo, included in the comparison because of its proximity to Fountain, requires all department heads and the city manager to live in Pueblo. Colorado Springs has no residency requirement.
Heberer notes that former Police Chief Todd Evans never moved to Fountain out of "safety concerns." As Trainor explains, Evans was never really the chief, but rather "interim" chief, and Council renewed his appointment periodically. In early 2015, Evans left for a job with Sheriff Bill Elder. Elder was formerly Evans' deputy chief (paid $84,490 a year) before being elected sheriff in late 2014.
Notably, when Evans later applied for the deputy city manager job in Fountain in mid-2016, he said in his application he had been Fountain's "police chief."
It's worth noting that the city says it has no job applications on file for Elder or Heberer, who's seen his pay rise by 36 percent in less than four years, to $130,585.
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Fran Carrick, one of the leaders of Fountain – A Place I Call Home, which has about 35 members, says the Anstine buyout caught her attention.
"When I heard he was retiring, I thought, 'Good for Darin,'" she says. "Then when I heard he accepted a position with Stratmoor, a little light went on. Then when I heard an interim fire chief was assigned who lives in Penrose, then a light went brighter. Then, the police chief [Heberer] asked for a charter change. Then there were rumblings and rumors of this $300,000, and I wanted to know if it was true."
So she went to a Council meeting and asked where the money came from. All seven councilors, she says, turned toward Trainor for an answer. Trainor said it came from the Fire Department's personnel fund.
Carrick says she couldn't help but wonder: Why did they turn to Trainor? Did Council members know the answer but were afraid to divulge it? Did they not know the answer? Had they ever asked?
"I saw this Council as one that rubber-stamps whatever goes through city staff," Carrick says, adding that the experience only made her more wary of what's going on in the city.
The group, along with other residents, had opposed a possible ballot measure that would have allowed officials to live outside the city.
"They made it like we are personally going against Mike Orr," Cimino says in an interview. "No, we want our fire chief to live here. It can be Mike Orr if he moves here. He needs to drink the same water we're drinking. He needs to deal with the same issues we're dealing with."
A day or two after Cimino shared those thoughts at a Council meeting, Heberer and the city's community outreach manager John Trylch dropped in at her gun store. Cimino described the encounter as "friendly intimidation."
"It was definitely, 'I'm your buddy. You should do what I say. Trust me. Why don't you trust me?'" she says, adding Heberer asked her, "Why are you asking questions about this, getting involved in this?"
"He was adamant about convincing me to trust him, and that I should not be asking questions," Cimino says. "This town is good at shutting people up who speak out."
Asked about that, Heberer says he went there to "try and solve the issue, to try and communicate. I'm a communicator. People have got to be able to communicate to work through issues. I just wanted to talk to her. That's it."
Trylch says he joined the visit at Heberer's invitation.
Heberer told employees in an Aug. 15 email he intends to resurrect the city charter change measure in 2019 and wants them to support him. "We will all need to attend these meeting to ensure WE are Clearly heard," he wrote.
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The chiefs' residency issue laid to rest for now, Fountain – A Place I Call Home is pushing for a recreation center or a pool and other amenities most cities of 30,000 have. It's also asking more questions, like whether Fountain's salaries are too high. (The Indy found that Fountain's 10 highest salaries average $122,196, which is second lowest compared to city salaries in Wheat Ridge, Brighton and Grand Junction, and Pueblo, which had the lowest average, at $120,621.)
Another question: What's up with city fleet vehicles being spotted at ball games, in Colorado Springs and "out and about just driving?" Harnick says. "Who's paying for gas for those vehicles? Are they driving them home? We've been doing [records] requests and we get charged quite a bit of money."
Carrick reports she had to pay $60 (an "unreasonable" charge, she says) for an organizational chart of city employees with salaries and address ZIP codes. The data showed 209 of the city's 279 employees live outside Fountain's city limits, including 51 of the city's 58 police officers, two of whom live in Cañon City.
Harnick recently submitted a records request to find out about diversity in the city workforce. "I have heard stories about discrimination, and that's why I wanted to do the diversity study," she says. "You never know what's true or not around here."