Columns » Between The Lines

Questions remain about the dismissal of Manitou’s city administrator

Between the Lines

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As the news from last week unfolded in Manitou Springs, the Pikes Peak Bulletin’s main front-page headline came as a shock to many.

“City mutually parts ways with Administrator Wells.”

That’s how most residents learned the details of the Manitou Springs City Council removing Jason Wells, the city administrator since June 2014.

It’s safe to say most Manitouans never knew Wells personally, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He wasn’t a politician, and he clearly felt most comfortable away from the spotlight. He also had no problem working 50 to 60 hours a week, keeping the Manitou government’s daily operation on track.

At 47, Wells gave every appearance of being a good fit for Manitou. He had worked for other small Colorado towns, as well as Denver. As an attorney, he brought legal expertise wrapped around that administrative experience. He enjoyed living and working in the area, buying a home in one of Manitou’s older neighborhoods. He made excellent hires, and was meticulous in overseeing the city’s budget, with a general fund reserve (rainy-day fund) that grew to an awe-inspiring $2.9 million at the end of 2017 despite expenses rising steadily. He had worked productively for two mayors, Marc Snyder and Nicole Nicoletta, with much different management styles.

Yet, suddenly, the City Council and new Mayor Ken Jaray decided to send Wells packing. One executive session, followed by an emergency meeting, and Wells was gone. (Later, it was announced that he received a quarter of his annual pay of roughly $104,000, or about $26,000, in accordance with a severance agreement.) That was quite a drastic, knee-jerk action, considering the lack of any apparent justification based on Wells’ performance during the past 31/2 years. He made it a priority to improve salaries for city staff, hoping to keep good people. But he never went
overboard trying to spend all the extra city revenue that came from better economic times and recreational marijuana.
Wells also left saying nothing to kindle controversy. He politely refused my offer of a conversation, even off the record. When reached by The Gazette, which covered the story days later, he gave this diplomatic statement:

“No doubt, it’s bittersweet, but I recognize and respect that the city is looking to move ahead in a different operational direction. I move on feeling proud of all the amazing accomplishments a very modestly sized, yet extremely talented city staff was able to advance during my tenure. As the eclectic and endearing Manitou Springs community sets about writing its next chapter, I of course wish nothing but the best for its future and its prosperity.”

That’s the Jason Wells many of us have known — always a decent person, never one to start a brouhaha. Since it’s clear he did nothing scandalously or ethically wrong, the decision to terminate him could be described as ill-advised, or at least unnecessarily hasty.

With new elected leaders taking over, a better approach would have been to reset guidelines/expectations for Wells and then re-evaluate after six months (or longer). Granted, Jaray came into office with a different agenda and broad community support. But Wells deserved the chance to continue with this mayor and Council.
Another factor suggested not moving so fast: Just a few weeks earlier, assistant administrator Dave Waters had departed after only five months, saying the position didn’t match what he sought. Filling that spot soon with the right person was essential. Now city staffers, already stretched thin, have to cover for both Wells and Waters. And Jaray has said that the city plans to spend up to $26,000 on a consultant to help find candidates to replace Wells.

Some are concluding that Wells might have become a victim of the same emotions that led to Jaray’s convincing victory over Nicoletta in November. Clearly, Nicoletta had alienated many residents by not allowing more feedback or responding to constituents’ concerns. But nobody has used that to explain Wells’ departure. Instead, Jaray told the Bulletin: “Any time there is a new administration, it’s a chance to take a look at the future direction of the city. Council has been talking with Jason and made the decision we should take a new direction. We recognize additional needs in the community, and we will start the process of finding someone who’ll lead us in that direction.”

With all due respect, that comment doesn’t suffice. One of Mayor Jaray’s “focus areas” during his campaign was to ensure government accountability. Given that, a more definitive explanation would appear to be in order — perhaps in the form of a message from the mayor to the community.

This story first appeared in the Pikes Peak Bulletin.

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