Updated: January 22, 2014 at 3:35 pm
A fired Colorado Springs City Council legislative assistant says the city made him a settlement offer and then reneged.
George Culpepper, who was fired Jan. 9 by Mayor Steve Bach, said he was offered $12,100, which is three months of salary, and three months of medical benefits just moments before he was scheduled to speak publicly about his termination.
But when his attorney Bob Gardner called to get the offer in writing, a city deputy attorney said there was no offer, Culpepper said.
"This was never about the money," Culpepper said Tuesday in an interview with The Gazette. "The thing that burns me up is they provided hope for my family, especially with the health care benefits."
Culpepper, 39, was hired Dec. 18 by the City Council to research and assist the council in its policy deliberations. Bach fired Culpepper after he called Alaska Airlines to ask about the impact of any policies the city might develop on recreational marijuana at the Colorado Springs Airport.
The city never made Culpepper a buyout or settlement offer, said the city's Chief of Staff Laura Neumann. She said there were many discussions between the city and Culpepper, "but no formal offer was made," she said.
And there won't be, Bach said.
"There is no agreement with Mr. Culpepper, nor will there be," Bach said Tuesday during his monthly news conference. Bach would not elaborate, saying the Culpepper issue "is a confidential personnel matter."
The city, which has 28 attorney positions in its attorney's office including three that specialize in human resources, hired outside law firm Hogan Lovells to handle the Culpepper case.
"I will tell you on several separations we retain outside counsel because it's about internal staff," Neumann said about why the city hired the firm. The city is negotiating a "not to exceed" price for services with the Hogan Lovells firm but the amount was not available Tuesday.
Culpepper was directed by the City Council to research the marijuana issue prior to the airport interim director Dan Gallagher's announcement of the airport rule that prohibits pot at the airport.
Gallagher expressed concern to Bach that a council representative was calling airlines directly instead of calling the airport's director for the answers.
"It projects a sense of internal distrust and conflict between our legislative and executive branches to our business partners," Gallagher wrote in a Jan. 5 email to the mayor.
The call to the airlines 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 the Jan. 9 termination notice to Culpepper from the city's human resources director.
"I didn't even get a written warning, not counseling, not a phone call, just a termination letter," Culpepper said. "I was doing what I was asked to do on an issue that matters most not just to Colorado Springs residents but to the state of Colorado."
City Council members have not publicly discussed details of the Culpepper case. But in a Jan. 10 email from council member Joel Miller to Bach provided to The Gazette under an open records request, Miller wrote, "Your termination of George Culpepper for 'failing to satisfactorily perform' is absolutely contradictory to any stated policy or expectation the city provided on communications for this position. This is a shameful chapter in the city's treatment of employees who are doing their job and is frankly an embarrassment to me as an elected official that we should have this type of knee jerk reaction."
Culpepper said he believes the city made the verbal settlement offer to keep him from discussing the details of his termination with the City Council at a public meeting.
"I want to make it clear that ultimately, my first question to the human resources director, when they offered to negotiate - and it was them that came to me, it wasn't me who came to them - that all I wanted was my job back because I didn't do anything wrong. But they were willing to negotiate some terms."
Culpepper said he did not receive an offer in writing. But he did receive an email from the city's Human Resources Director Michael Sullivan Jan. 14 that said: "I am unable to complete the agreement tonight, wanted to be sure you were aware. It is my hope that I will be able to have it completed tomorrow. I will forward to you electronically ASAP, once it is done."
Culpepper said he was willing to make a deal with the city and sign a confidentiality/non-disparagement agreement - which would have said he could not disparage the city or any of its elected officials or discuss the terms of a settlement - because his 4-year-old daughter has chronic ear infections and the three months of extended medical benefits would have allowed him to bridge the gap until he qualified for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, health benefits. Records show that from June 2011 to Aug. 9, 2013, 10 former city employees signed the confidential/non-disparagment agreements, including the former airport director Mark Earle and former fire chief Steve Cox.
Culpepper said his issue is not over.
"I think there is some other course of action to take," he said. "I will leave it up to my attorney for us to figure that out what that course will be."
Gardner, who is a Colorado state representative, said Culpepper has a claim of at least a breach of a binding offer and possibly breach of contract. He added that he will investigate a potential cause of action "of outrageous conduct on the part of city officials," he said. "It's become clear that someone in the city's leadership is not telling the truth."
Culpepper said he believes his firing has a chilling affect on other city employees and the city's residents.
"The public cannot be served properly knowing that these individuals could be gone the next day," he said. "I didn't think I was going to be gone - no idea because I knew what my job entailed."