February 1, 2014 Updated: February 1, 2014 at 8:25 am
When a new employee of the Colorado Springs City Council initiated talk about drugs with Alaska Airlines, airport management and Mayor Steve Bach were shocked.
A top mayoral priority involves recruiting more airlines to establish competition, lower prices and more options for the community. Bach and airport director Dan Gallagher say the employee circumvented process and jeopardized a sensitive and important new relationship between the city and Alaska Airlines.
Council legislative assistant George Culpepper worked for the legislative branch. Yet the mayor, who heads the executive branch, fired him. What gives?
It's an ugly and sad situation. Culpepper, mostly trying to answer questions for the council, probably did became a problem for the airport. The nature of Culpepper's questions would make any airline question the wisdom of doing business in Colorado Springs.
In an email, Culpepper told the airline about the mayor preparing an emergency ordinance to ban pot at the airport. Airlines are regulated by the federal government, which enforces federal laws against possession and transportation of federally banned narcotics. A city law keeping drugs away would naturally reduce airline trepidations about doing business in the Springs. After advising the airline of an ordinance that would help, Culpepper suggested how the council might stand in the way.
"However, if Council has the majority of votes to not pass the ordinance, passengers would be allowed to transport marijuana on airlines that fly out of Colorado Springs," Culpepper wrote.
It's easy to see why such communication might keep airport officials up at night. It's also understandable that council members are miffed at Culpepper's swift removal. Their reaction is reminiscent of Bach's annoyance when City Council cut the pay of former City Attorney Chris Melcher, who was hired by the mayor and driven out by the council.
It's great when one branch of government takes reasonable measures to keep the other in check. It's another thing when two branches of government go to war at the public's expense.
In the Culpepper saga, Bach wanted action. Given the way the city charter reads, the action was his alone to take.
"The Mayor shall appoint and suspend or remove any City government employee, which excludes employees of City Utilities and the City's health system" - charter 4-40(c).
Members of the council, stunned by Culpepper's firing, want to change the charter. A majority agreed to convene a committee to draft possible changes for voters to consider in November.
It's reasonable that disciplinary action or removal of a legislative employee should come at discretion of the council. For that to happen, the law must establish proper chains of command. The council should not punish mayoral appointees and the city's chief executive should not be left responsible for legislative employees. At the same time, charter and/or code changes must mandate standards of conduct among city employees and require that each branch of uphold them. We cannot allow politicians to tolerate employees who pose harm to the community.
Changes to the charter should also impose reasonable term limits on interim executive-branch employees, possibly of one year. But the charter must also protect the mayor's ability to make interim appointments without political interference from the legislative branch. Our community has problems and cannot afford more gridlock. Additionally, charter changes should ensure swift and efficient ratification of mayoral employees so City Hall can serve the public without delay.
We have dysfunction among the mayor and the council, in part, because the charter promotes it. Council members are wise to embark on a tune-up. Let's hope they put community's interests first as they proceed.