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City Council eyeing charter change to allow it to have its own staff, attorney

April 23, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2014 at 9:10 am
photo - The Colorado Springs City Council listens to testimony at a November meeting. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
The Colorado Springs City Council listens to testimony at a November meeting. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

The Colorado Springs City Council needs its own attorney and needs to be able to hire and fire its own staff, council President Keith King says.

He says the city's charter, which is the city's constitution, needs to be changed to give the City Council those powers. He proposed the charter amendments Tuesday. He wants the proposed amendments on the November ballot.

"The ballot measure would be to amend the charter of the city of Colorado Springs," he told council members. "It would give the council authority to employ its own employees. And when needed, hire their own attorney."

The council must vote on the issue by the end of June to get an item on the November ballot, City Clerk Sarah Johnson said.

City attorney Wynetta Massey said the council could make some of the changes in the city code, which would not require voter approval.

City attorneys are reviewing all references to the city attorney and staffing in the city code, Massey said. The attorneys also are drafting an ethics policy that may address some of the concerns the council has had about the city attorney's loyalty and attorney-client privilege.

But she added, "If you want to change the charter, change the charter."

Potential changes to the city charter were first discussed in January at a City Council retreat. Then, Mayor Steve Bach had just fired the City Council's legislative assistant, George Culpepper, without the council's consent, and the wounds were fresh.

The council had hired Culpepper on Dec. 18 to research issues for its policy decisions. But Bach fired Culpepper on Jan. 9 after Culpepper called Alaska Airlines asking questions regarding marijuana at the airport.

The firing of the City Council's assistant inflamed the already hard feelings between the City Council and the mayor.

The charter currently gives the mayor - the city's CEO - the power to hire and fire all city employees. But the City Council has five staff members who are hired by the council and report directly to the council.

The charter also gives the mayor power to appoint the city attorney, who heads up a 28-person city department.

Almost as soon as the council-mayor form of government started to take shape in Colorado Springs, conflict arose between the former city attorney, Chris Melcher, and the City Council.

(Voters approved the council-mayor governmental structure in 2010 and elected the city's first strong mayor in 2011.)

The former council and the new council have said that the city attorney's office, under the direction of Melcher, was giving the council advice that slanted toward the mayor's position.

The tension led to the council docking Melcher's pay and publicly reprimanding him in September.

The following month, Melcher announced he would resign as city attorney in January. Massey recently was appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council as the city attorney.

Council member Joel Miller said he encountered resistance from the city attorney's office when he was drafting a proposed ordinance on the city's use of eminent domain - after Melcher left the city. In an April 7 memo, Massey said the city attorney's office fulfilled its role on the proposed ordinance.

Miller said the bottom line is that the city attorney will have natural loyalty to the person, or entity, that hires him or her.

"The only way around it is to have an elected city attorney," he said.

King said the council needs the option to seek an alternative legal opinion, especially on issues where the council and mayor don't see eye to eye.

For example, the council and the mayor do not agree on how to pay for the city's millions in stormwater and drainage needs.

In September, the council voted to set aside $35,000 to hire an attorney for advice on stormwater issues.

Bach points to the city of Denver, which has a council-mayor form of government, but has only one city attorney's office. He has said that dueling legal opinions could create more problems than they solve.

The city's charter is vague and confusing, said Bob Loevy, Colorado College professor emeritus of political science.

For example, the charter says the city attorney is the legal adviser of the mayor, council, commissions and department heads. And it also says the City Council can hire an outside attorney to assist the city attorney.

During the open session of Tuesday's council meeting, resident James Schneiter said the council should consider wholesale charter changes because he believes the executive branch has too much power.

"Do you not agree that ambiguities exist in the charter and that a power struggle is inevitable because of this?" he said to the council.

Some council members have expressed reservations about changing the charter based on current personalities.

They have suggested waiting a few election cycles before making sweeping changes.

Loevy said he would advise the City Council to make changes as they come up and not to wait.

The whole idea of a charter government is that it can be changed, said Loevy, who served on a past charter review committee.

And when voters changed the city's charter in 2010, the charter was left incomplete, he said.

"The conflicts are only going to go stronger until these problems are ironed out," he said.

Council member Andy Pico said he is willing to see what the city attorney's office says about changing city code to strengthen the council's hiring and firing positions and hiring its own attorney when needed.

"But I don't want to lose sight that we need a charter change," he said. "I want to keep that on the back burner."

The council will discuss the issue again in May.

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