Updated: October 31, 2013 at 8:05 am
Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher, who became the focal point of a power struggle in the city's new form of government, will leave his position at the end of January.
Melcher, an appointee of Mayor Steve Bach, said he promised Bach when he took the job as the city's top attorney that he would stay for two years. It's time, Melcher said, for the next chapter in his career. Melcher, 54, is leaving the city without having another job.
"Public service is a sacrifice for me and for my family, two years is a significant commitment," he said. "I was proud and honored to serve and accept that for two years . . . now, it is time to get back into the private sector."
Melcher told the 28 attorneys in his office Wednesday afternoon but had not yet told the nine City Council members, with whom he has had a tumultuous relationship, of his plans to leave.
Bach said in a statement that Melcher has been an outstanding leader, attorney and adviser.
Melcher said the terms of a severance package have not yet been discussed, nor any arrangement for Melcher to stay on as a consultant to the city as other departing city employees, including the director of aviation and fire chief, have done. He said he will stay on as city attorney until Jan. 31.
"Once that time is done, if the mayor or city council thinks I can be of service, I will consider it," he said.
Almost from the beginning of his Oct. 1, 2011 appointment as city attorney, Melcher has drawn criticism from past and current City Council members who said his legal advice typically aligns with the mayor's political position.
Melcher was named the city's attorney as the governance changed from a city manager form of government to a mayor-council form of government. That required Melcher to interpret the City's Charter and Code and provide legal direction on executive and legislative duties.
In September, City Council members said they were so frustrated with Melcher's performance they docked his annual salary and told him they would fire him if they could. And, against Melcher's advice, the council set aside $35,000 to hire an outside attorney for advice on stormwater issues. That attorney has not yet been hired.
Melcher, an attorney for more than 25 years with Yale Law School credentials, had previously been chief legal officer at Colorado College since 2006. As city attorney, he often had to deliver legal opinions viewed as unfavorable to the City Council, which lost a great deal of its power over the city's budget, hiring and day-to-day city operations under the new form of government. Those duties shifted to the mayor, who serves as the city's CEO.
Melcher maintained that the city attorney's office served the city of Colorado Springs, including the executive and legislative branches. It did not, he said, tailor opinions to match the city council or the mayor's point of view.
"We are duty bound to give the best legal advice we can," Melcher told Council in September when his performance was discussed as part of a new salary schedule.
Bach put him in charge of leading the city's team working on the City for Champions proposal, which seeks state sales tax rebates to fund about one-third of the cost to build four major tourism projects.
But at City Hall, Melcher was privately and publicly criticized by council members for being too closely aligned with the mayor. Council members said they didn't trust Melcher to give them an unbiased opinion. For example, councilman Joel Miller said Melcher was part of the team that put together the city's application for the City for Champions proposal. But City Council has not endorsed the proposal and some council members have legal questions about the application calling for public money to be spent in support of the tourism projects.
"Where do we go for legal advice when you are on the record endorsing the project," Miller said to Melcher in a September meeting.
Since April, Melcher's work has been the subject of lengthy City Council meetings, including two with the mayor detailing council's disappointment with Melcher's performance. In September, council members docked Melcher's annual salary by $4,000, down to $183,736. He was the only city employee whose salary was cut.
Angry over the salary cut, Bach accused council of trying to run Melcher out of the city attorney's office and called council's action "shameful."
"He loves our city and has done a tremendous for us in two years," Bach said in the statement. "The success of leasing Memorial Hospital to the University of Colorado Health is due largely to Chris Melcher's tenacity and hard work. We will miss him greatly."
Melcher said Wednesday that council's criticism is not a factor in his departure.
"This kind of job starts well before 8 a.m. and ends after 6 p.m. and its obligations don't take a vacation or turn off on weekends or holidays," he said. "There is a time when I need to do what is right for my family." Melcher is married with a 9-year-old son.
Melcher led a team of 28 staff attorneys and 14 staffers and worked with dozens of outside attorneys on issues such as the Memorial lease agreement and water rights issues. In his most recent quarterly report to council, Melcher said his office was handling more than 60 active lawsuits against the city and close to 100 water rights cases per quarter.
"There isn't anyone who can fully understand the added responsibility and pressure of being in a public position until they have been in that position," he said.
Melcher said one of the most challenging and rewarding issues he worked on as city attorney was the Memorial lease.
"I am very proud of that - that took our effort night and day for over a year," he said.
Melcher said it will be up to the mayor to appoint his replacement.