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Colorado Springs council aide fired after calling airline about marijuana rules

By: monica mendoza ?
January 15, 2014 Updated: January 16, 2014 at 6:34 pm
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CORRECTION: This story has been corrected because the quote from George Culpepper's termination letter was wrongly attributed to Mayor Steve Bach in an earlier version.


Colorado Springs City Council legislative assistant George Culpepper made the mistake of calling Alaska Airlines to talk about pot policy without Mayor Steve Bach's permission.

The call was an improper act and "so egregious, and so seriously damaging to the airport's relationship with Alaska Airlines and other potential airlines serving the community, that termination is warranted," according to a Jan. 9 termination notice from the city's human resources director obtained by The Gazette.

Culpepper, who was hired by the City Council on Dec. 18, was fired Jan. 9.

Culpepper was asked by the council to research how marijuana should be handled at the Colorado Springs Airport. He made calls and sent emails, but did not run his questions through the Mayor's Office.

"George was doing that research for us," said Council President Keith King, who days after the firing was visibly shaken. "He was fired unjustly."

Culpepper declined to comment Wednesday. His attorney, Bob Gardner, a state representative, could not be reached for comment.

The Culpepper firing highlights the issue of information control from the executive branch to the legislative branch, said council member Joel Miller.

He described the mayor's information policy, which says any City Council request for information from city staff should be copied to chief of staff Laura Neumann, as a "calculated attempt to limit information to City Council."

Bach said that assertion is absurd.

In fact, he said, the policy he issued in June was meant to ensure that council members receive information in a timely manner.

"There is no attempt to control information," Bach said.

Culpepper was one of 50 candidates for the job of council legislative assistant.

He has made a career of working in government and politics as government affairs directors at various associations and running political campaigns. He most recently worked at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Cheyenne.

Culpepper was set to discuss his termination at a special council meeting Monday. But the meeting was canceled, and it appeared that Culpepper entered into some type of negotiation with city officials; however, nothing has been announced.

In his role with City Council he was researching issues ranging from possible annexation of the area on Colorado Avenue known as "no man's land" to fire protection in the Creekside neighborhood.

When recreational pot went on sale in stores around the state Jan. 1, Culpepper was directed to research recreational marijuana and the airport. His first call was to Alaska Airlines on Jan. 3.

A few days later, Colorado Springs interim airport director Dan Gallagher announced a new airport rule that prohibits pot from the airport. Gallagher said the rule complied with federal regulations that prohibit marijuana from commercial aircraft.

But Gallagher was concerned about Culpepper's calls to the airlines and sent Bach an email: "I absolutely understand they have the right to make calls and do their own research, but it does not send the right message to outside parties when the Airport could have already answered their concerns," he wrote.

Bach sent the email to King and council member Merv Bennett, saying they needed to meet. Culpepper was terminated four days later.

A spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines could not be reached Wednesday.

But an Alaska Airlines official, Mookie Patel, said in an email to Gallagher that he would prefer communication to be through the airport director's office only, especially on matters that are governmental affairs related.

Patel commended the Colorado Springs Airport for restructuring its finances to encourage a low-cost operating model; "however we do not want to see your efforts overshadowed by calls to our CEOs office that might shed a different light on the airport professionalism and great reputation thus far."

Bach would not discuss the Culpepper case, saying it was a personnel issue. He only added that Culpepper made the calls to airlines but never called the airport director.

Bach said some council members are confusing the Culpepper issue with his information policy and called the complaint of a clampdown on information political.

Bach made the information policy after the demand for research and projects coming from individual council members was swallowing staff time, he said.

"We became inundated with requests," Bach said.

Bach said he worked with King and Bennett to come up with a compromise - for big projects, a request would be made by at least five council members. It would help staff prioritize, he said.

"I said, please copy Laura Neumann - I wanted to make sure the chief of staff could monitor our responsiveness," Bach said.

But King and Miller said council has trouble getting information on issues that might be controversial, including the City for Champions project.

The city's economic vitality specialist Bob Cope told Miller in a December email that he could not answer Miller's questions: "I am a direct report to the mayor, I must ask you to direct such requests and communications directly through the mayor. I will be glad to respond in accordance with his direction," Cope wrote.

King worries about the next council legislative assistant, saying he's not sure how that person can do the job without the ability to freely research an issue, which includes calling staff and others.

"The role should not be limited at all," King said. "If we can find the answers to our questions inside city government, that's fine. But there are many questions that we are asked and we need to deal with that we need total freedom to go wherever we need to go and get that information ourselves. We cannot be restricted."

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