It's no secret that Mayor Steve Bach is trying to pull Colorado Springs Airport out of a funk marked by its lowest passenger counts in years.
So when a newly hired City Council legislative researcher contacted Alaska Airlines — which began one daily flight from Colorado Springs in November to much fanfare, including a flight by Bach to Seattle — and didn't tell the mayor's staff beforehand, Bach fired him.
In the termination letter sent to George Culpepper, the city said his actions were "so seriously damaging to the airport's relationship with Alaska Airlines that termination is warranted." Never mind that when the Independent asked Alaska Air about the assertion that the relationship was damaged, company spokesman Paul McElroy said, "Absolutely not true from our standpoint."
A confusing week
Based on documents and emails obtained and interviews done by the Independent, the story unfolds like this.
Culpepper started his job Dec. 18. On Jan. 3, he met with Council President Keith King. Talk turned to the airport.
Culpepper noted that the U.S. Department of Justice had issued a memo in August stating that although the agency might not pursue individuals for possession of small amounts of marijuana in states where possession is legal, the federal government's priorities include "preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states."
In late December, Denver International Airport officials announced they would ban marijuana. As of Jan. 3, it wasn't clear that the Springs would do the same. That day, in fact, KRDO-TV quoted Springs Airport official John McGinley as saying, "We talked to TSA about that issue. If they find it in someone's possession, they refer it to our law enforcement. If our law enforcement says it's within the legal limit, they're going to take no action."
King asked Culpepper to do some research. Culpepper called Alaska Air and spoke with a corporate attorney. He followed up with an email to the attorney in which he stated, "My questions are: What positions, if any, will the airlines take on transporting marijuana out of Colorado? Will any airlines decide to pull out of Colorado Springs if a ban of possession is not in place, creating an economic uncertainty?"
Alaska Airlines contacted airport officials the next day, Saturday, Jan. 4, about Culpepper's questions. At about 9 a.m. Jan. 5, airport director Dan Gallagher emailed Bach, telling him Culpepper had reached out to Alaska Air.
"Not a good sign that again Council chose to contact airport stakeholders, this time an airline directly without even a courtesy call to the airport," Gallagher wrote. "It continues to project an [sic] sense of internal distrust and conflict between our legislative and executive branch to our business partners." Gallagher then offered to discuss what kind of action might be appropriate.
A letter dated Jan. 6 — the very next day — advised Culpepper that he would be entitled to continue his health insurance under the COBRA plan — which, of course, would follow separation from the city.
On Jan. 8, Police Chief Pete Carey wrote a memo to Council proposing an ordinance that would ban possession of marijuana "in all city indoor facilities." That same day, the city called a news conference to announce "a rule prohibiting the possession of marijuana on certain portions of airport property." (For more on the rule, see Cannabiz on p. 38.)
That afternoon or evening, Bach called King to say he planned to fire Culpepper. King quickly called a Council meeting for 8 a.m. the next day, without posting public notice. Four Councilors attended that meeting, but no action was taken. Also attending were Bach's Chief of Staff Laura Neumann, Interim City Attorney Wynetta Massey, Carey, and HR director Mike Sullivan.
That evening, a courier delivered a termination notice to Culpepper's home.
On Jan. 10, Mookie Patel, an Alaska Airlines airport affairs manager, wrote an email to Gallagher saying Culpepper's call caught the airline's leaders "off guard" and that "going forward, we would appreciate maintaining our relationship and communciation [sic] channel through the Airport Director's office only, espcially [sic] matters that are governmental affairs related."
Patel also commended the city for its efforts to restructure the airport's finances, but added, "However, we do not want to see your efforts overshadowed by calls to our CEO's office that might shed a different light on the Airport professionalism and great reputation thus far."
McElroy says in an interview that not only is the airline's relationship with the city still sound but that Patel was merely trying to convey that he and other officials are accustomed to dealing with airport officials.
Council was scheduled to discuss Culpepper's dismissal late Tuesday morning, after the Indy's deadline. Culpepper told the Indy Jan. 10 that he was shocked by it, saying he wasn't aware he needed to work through other staff members to obtain information.
Culpepper, a 39-year-old married father of two young children, has worked for several political campaigns and served as legislative aide in the state House and Senate since 2004. He also worked in government and political affairs for a Realtor group in Washington and Montana and most recently was a Veterans Affairs employee in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Culpepper was to be paid $48,500 per year in his Colorado Springs job, but as of press time, it appeared he wouldn't receive any severance pay outside of a month's health insurance coverage for his family.
His firing jolted Councilors out of any illusions they may have had about the five employees working for them.
City Attorney Chris Melcher says all city employees, except the auditor and Springs Utilities CEO, work for the mayor.
Asked late Monday for comment via the city communications office on Culpepper's dismissal, the mayor did not reply by press time.
Councilor Andy Pico says he's "appalled" at the move, adding that the reason appears "contrived."
Says Councilor Joel Miller, "I don't know how you have separation of powers when your staff can be fired by the mayor on a whim. If that's the way the system works, it's broke and needs to be fixed." (King says Council will discuss the issue at its Jan. 29 retreat.)
Councilor Jan Martin laments the damage of the dismissal, saying, "It's really sad when people's lives are impacted."
A meeting that wasn't
On Thursday, Jan. 9, Councilors Keith King, Merv Bennett, Helen Collins and Don Knight convened to talk about city business, with interim City Attorney Wynetta Massey assuring them it wasn't an official meeting because it dealt with a personnel issue, King tells the Indy.
Colorado's Open Meetings Act states that all meetings of a quorum or three or more members of a local public body, whichever is fewer, at which public business is discussed or formal action might be taken, are to be considered open. Open meetings require 24 hours notice be posted so the public can attend; there was no advance posting. Also, minutes must be taken at an open meeting, and there's no indication that happened here.
Both Denver attorney Steve Zansberg and Colorado Ethics Watch executive director Luis Toro say city officials should have followed meeting protocol, with Toro saying, "They should have given notice of the meeting and then voted to go into executive session to discuss personnel matters."
Asked Monday about her decision on the meeting, Massey said simply, "There was no public meeting." — PZ