Penelope Culbreth-Graft, who guided Colorado Springs city government through two arduous years of severe budget cuts and layoffs, will resign as city manager April 16.
The Friday announcement came four days after Culbreth-Graft’s annual performance evaluation, during which several City Council members said she’s done an admirable job in tough economic times.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Mayor Lionel Rivera of her resignation. “She did a good job of making city government more efficient during a very difficult time in a way that most residents didn’t feel until this year.”
Culbreth-Graft could not be reached for comment. She said in a letter to the mayor and council members (below) that she plans to start a public-speaking, consulting and writing business.
She became city manager in January 2008, replacing interim City Manager Mike Anderson, and is paid $210,000 a year, plus benefits. In her letter, she noted that she’s overseen $90 million in budget cuts and the elimination of almost 550 city jobs. The cuts, which have received national media attention, have included pulling trash cans from city parks, turning off thousands of streetlights, selling two police helicopters, and proposals to shut down community centers and pools.
But Culbreth-Graft has repeatedly resisted pay and benefit cuts for city employees.
“After meeting with you earlier this week, hearing your future direction, I believe this is a good time for me to leave the organization so that you can pursue this new path,” Culbreth-Graft wrote.
Rivera said he didn’t know what Culbreth-Graft meant by “future direction” and that he has not spoken to her since the announcement.
Near the end of her letter, she praised the city’s roughly 2,200 employees, who “have labored tirelessly to care for the people of our city. I urge you to consider the business case for avoiding further cuts in compensation.”
It’s not clear if she plans to remain in Colorado Springs. She moved from Huntington Beach, Calif., where she was city manager, and where her ocean-view home fell into a widely publicized foreclosure. She previously declined to comment about the foreclosure, saying it was personal business.
Councilman Randy Purvis said replacing Culbreth-Graft will take some time. Seven of the City Council positions are up for election in April 2011. Also, earlier this month, a leading Springs businessman announced a drive to convert the city to a strong-mayor form of government, which, depending on how the city charter would be rewritten, could eliminate the need for a city manager. Such a move would require voter approval.
“Given the situation, my gut says we’ll have an interim for 12-18 months,” Purvis said. “Given that there could be seven new council members a year from now, it could be tough to get anybody to apply for this position until they know that council is settled and not likely to be changing drastically.”
Purvis said Culbreth-Graft’s opposition to pay cuts isn’t likely to be an option for the next city manager.
“I’m not sure we can get through the next budget cycle without looking at pay cuts or asking employees to shoulder more benefit costs, retirement costs — I just don’t think that’s possible,” Purvis said. “For some managers, that’s not someplace they want to go. Culbreth-Graft has been very clear that’s not where she wanted to go.”
Councilman Sean Paige said that while Culbreth-Graft was under no pressure to resign, his sense was that the city’s budget cuts had left her defeated and that a fresh approach to the city’s challenges would be a good thing.
“My sense for a number of months is that Penny is a little shell-shocked and is too deep in the rut of doom and gloom,” Paige said. “I think we all realize that the city is in a jam. When we’re in a jam, we need a leader who, while not sugar-coating things, is still optimistic.”
Paige said the city will need to cut payroll, sell assets and outsource services.
“I think she might have exhausted her ability to innovate and come to the conclusion she can’t do any more,” Paige said.
Councilman Tom Gallagher said he hadn’t been told of the resignation. Gallagher has been critical of Culbreth-Graft for resisting across-the-board pay cuts for city employees.
“This comes out of the blue,” he said. “I’m very surprised, because her evaluation was four days ago.”
Councilman Scott Hente described himself as “a big fan of Penny’s.”
“I think it was very tough on her personally, with the significant cutbacks we’ve had to do in the city,” Hente said. “I think she took the city’s financial situation very personal.”
Hente said there was no truth to rumors that the council forced Culbreth-Graft to resign.
Councilmember Darryl Glenn said the resignation was a surprise. He gave Culbreth-Graft high marks.
“When you look at her performance plan and what we’ve asked her to do, she’s given us solid advice,” Glenn said. “Council hasn’t taken it — a lot of the responsibility lies at the feet of council.”
Daniel Chacon, Wayne Heilman and Lance Benzel contributed to this report.
Below is the text of her resignation letter:
March 19, 2010
Honorable Mayor and Members of the City Council:
This is to inform you that I am resigning my position as City Manager. My last day will be April 16, 2010. After meeting with you earlier this week, hearing your future direction, I believe this is a good time for me to leave the organization so that you can pursue this new path. After 32 years of serving the public, I will be launching a family business in public speaking, consulting, and writing.
In my two years with the City, inheriting a substantial financial shortfall, we have reduced deficits of $90 million and removed nearly 550 positions while working to minimize the impacts on the public. While your staff and I have worked diligently to plan the future with declining resources, a plethora of options remain available should you wish to reconsider them. I have worked to leave you with a plan for continued cuts and shedding of municipal operations.
I want to commend each of you for your relentless service to this community. What you are doing is thankless, time consuming, and difficult.
Finally, my comments must focus on the public servants who have labored tirelessly to care for the people of our city. They are to be commended for their professionalism—especially in these times of severe scrutiny. They are remarkable. I urge you to consider the business case for avoiding further cuts in compensation—especially given the looming collapse of the TABOR cap that will ensure no adjustments despite a future economic recovery. Even without any decreases, your workforce is behind the market and will lose ground as each city on the Front Range recovers, making it impossible to employ a competent, trained, and knowledgeable workforce.
Thank you for the privilege of serving the City of Colorado Springs.
Dr. Penelope Culbreth-Graft