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The worst job in the Springs

City Sage



What's the most toxic workplace in Colorado Springs? I think I know.

It's a nine-employee outfit located in an airy, light-filled downtown building. The company's website is full of cheerful exhortations about improved service, community engagement, and moving the enterprise forward, but the reality is a little different.

Employees actively scheme to undermine each other, both in and away from the workplace. Attempts to heal the rifts have been for naught, as have the company's efforts to move forward.

The company president has restructured employee responsibilities, forcing his fellow workers to spend most of their time attending meetings. In a novel twist, he's instituted the practice of pre-meeting meetings, during which employees review the topics that will be addressed in the next meeting.

Most decisions are deferred indefinitely, or rescheduled for future meetings. Outside staffers are charged with preparing agendas and maintaining records of the meetings. The records are archived, but only consulted by company employees who want to make sure that their remarks have been accurately transcribed.

The company is, of course, Colorado Springs City Council. It's easy to make fun of the folks who most contribute to that dysfunction (Keith King, Joel Miller, Don Knight — I'm talkin' to you!), but it's not entirely their fault. True, they've helped make a bad situation worse, but serving on Council has been a waking nightmare since the change to a strong-mayor form of government in 2011.

Councilors get paid $6,250 annually. For that, they're expected to attend interminable meetings; oversee Colorado Springs Utilities; understand every city department, figure out what's going on with enterprises as varied as the airport, the golf courses and the Pikes Peak Highway; be absolutely responsive to annoyed constituents; and accept Mayor Steve Bach doing whatever he can to control the flow of city information.

Prior to 2011, Council aspirants tended to fall into one of three categories: rich, retired or blessed with a high-earning spouse. To that you can now add a fourth descriptor: batshit crazy.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, County Commissioner Amy Lathen, and former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace may all run for mayor — but do you think they'd run for Council? Not a chance.

Look at the Utility Board agenda for a routine meeting from Sept. 17. It's 224 pages long, which isn't unusual. Much of it is devoted to proposed amendments to the wastewater treatment plan, required to "align [liquid waste hauler regulations] with federal requirements."

Who wouldn't want to spend a glorious fall afternoon with such a task?

Or consider the city budget, all 300 pages of it. You need to read it, understand it, and join with the administration, your colleagues, city residents and local stakeholders to make it better. In theory, it should be a calm, collegial and productive process. In practice, it's a nasty goat rope.

In the past, serving on Council was an honor. Now, it's something to be shunned. In past years, half a dozen eager candidates would have surfaced for an upcoming April election, but as of last week there were none.

Summit Economics partner Tom Binnings had been considering a run for public office, but recently told me, "I don't think I can pass the insanity test. And as for Council, we do have a fundamental problem with the structure of the institution."

The root of the problem? Money. The frustrations, responsibilities and inherent difficulties of the job are beyond the capacity of a volunteer board. In politics, as in life, you get what you pay for.

The three at-large seats will be in play. Incumbent Jan Martin is term-limited, while her colleagues Val Snider and Merv Bennett have yet to announce their intentions.

Jan, Val, Merv — I've got a better idea. Don't run, and don't go quietly. Instead, sue the city for creating, supporting and sustaining a hostile work environment. Face it: If City Council were indeed a company, their insurance company would settle in a heartbeat.

And if he could, I'm sure that Mayor Steve Bach would give you substantial severance payments and fire those of your colleagues whom he deemed responsible for that hostile environment ...

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