Severance agreements between Mayor Steve Bach and numerous city employees should be released in accord with open records laws, according to a letter submitted to the city Monday on behalf of the Independent.
The city has denied access to the agreements, although it has released the amounts paid to some 23 employees since Bach was elected in mid-2011. The Indy requested the agreements in February, then again in March. Both times, the city refused, citing portions of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) that bar release of personnel files containing "home addresses, telephone numbers, financial information, and other information maintained because of the employer-employee relationship ..."
Media attorney Steven D. Zansberg of Denver has said that severance agreements are not part of personnel files.
Since Bach took office, he's paid $1 million-plus to departing employees ("Take the money and run," News, April 3), many of whom "retired" but still received severance pay, such as City Attorney Patricia Kelly, Budget Director Lisa Bigelow and Human Resources Director Ann Crossey. Others, such as Fire Chief Rich Brown, retired but are collecting checks as consultants.
It's important the public understand what the city and the departing employees agreed to because, as City Councilor Jan Martin says, when such agreements contain confidentiality clauses "it can have the appearance of hush money."
"One of the differences between a business CEO and a government employee (Mayor) is the government has an expectation from the public to be open and transparent regarding it's [sic] transactions," she says via e-mail. "In my opinion, this would include releasing details of any severance packages given to employees as they leave their city job."
Martin also notes she's concerned that paying employees to leave could evolve into a regular cost of doing business under the new council-mayor form of government, "as each new Mayor who comes into office will probably want to bring with them their own people."
Former El Paso County Attorney Bill Louis (pictured), representing the Indy and senior reporter Pam Zubeck, asks the city in his letter to produce the agreements under Colorado law that he calls "well-settled in favor of disclosure." In addition, he urges the city to reconsider its policy for charging fees for gathering and making available public records, calling it a "misleading interpretation of CORA."