Hard feelings over George Culpepper firing could spur charter change by City Council

January 29, 2014 Updated: January 30, 2014 at 12:31 pm
photo - George Culpepper,  legislative liaison to the Colorado Springs City Council,  talks during an interview at the Gazette on Tuesday, January 21, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
George Culpepper, legislative liaison to the Colorado Springs City Council, talks during an interview at the Gazette on Tuesday, January 21, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Outraged and disappointed at the recent firing of its legislative assistant, the Colorado Springs City Council will seek a change in the city's charter to preclude the mayor from firing its staffers.

The council will convene a committee to review the city's charter and code, and draft a potential charter change that could go to voters in November.

Council members met Wednesday in a retreat to discuss a long list of issues. But foremost on their minds was the recent firing of City Council Legislative Assistant George Culpepper.

The council hired Culpepper Dec. 18 to research issues for its policy decisions. The position had been vacant for months, and the council immediately put Culpepper to work researching issues surrounding annexation, fire prevention and marijuana possession at the Colorado Springs Airport, among other things.

But after Culpepper called Alaska Airlines asking questions for his research, Mayor Steve Bach fired him on Jan. 9. According to the termination notice to Culpepper from the city's human resources director, 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."

Culpepper's firing inflamed the hard feelings between the City Council and the mayor, who already had a strained working relationship.

At their meeting, Council members agreed that the city's charter needs to be changed. 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 staffers who are hired by the council and report directly to the council.

Council wants a change in the city's charter that would give it hiring and firing power over its direct report employees.

"Our staff can't function with the threat of being fired for ticking off the mayor," said council member Joel Miller.

Council president Keith King said a charter review committee would go forward with or without Bach's input or consent. Bach, through a city spokeswoman said, "It is council's prerogative to establish a charter review committee."

The council did not set a timeline for establishing the committee or discuss details of who would sit on it. But the changes need to happen soon, council members said.

City Auditor Denny Nester, who reports to City Council, said the 13-member auditing staff is nervous about doing its work.

"If there is a question that comes up on a controversial issue, they are saying, 'You make the calls.' Well that is what George (Culpepper) did," Nester said. "I would appreciate it if the charter issue could be addressed sooner than later."

Council member Andy Pico said the council is in a hiring holding pattern with its legislative assistant until the charter issue can be resolved.

"The firing reverberated throughout the entire city administration - it sent shock waves," he said. "At this point I don't think we can even go out and advertise the position."

Wednesday's retreat was the most that council members have publicly said about the Culpepper firing. Interim City Attorney Wynetta Massey warned council members last week during a special meeting that the Culpepper issue was a private personnel matter. She also told council that Culpepper was a city employee whose employment status was under the mayor's purview.

Culpepper told City Council on Jan. 22 that he never was given a warning about his call to Alaska Airlines, and received the termination letter by courier. Then, he told council, the city's Human Resource director offered him $12,100 and three months of medical benefits in exchange for not speaking publicly about his termination. But when Culpepper's attorney, Bob Gardner, called the city attorney's office to get the deal in writing, the offer was pulled, Culpepper said.

Bach and the city's Chief of Staff Laura Neumann said last week there never was a formal offer made to Culpepper. Bach added that there never would be.

Culpepper, who has an email and voice mail from the city's Human Resources director referencing an agreement, said last week that he is evaluating his legal options. Gardner, a Colorado state representative, said Culpepper has a claim of at least a breach of a binding offer and possibly breach of contract and outrageous conduct on the part of city officials.

Council member Don Knight said emotions are running strong, but the issue of hiring and firing power is one council has brought up in the past.

"Having an outside citizen group help us is good. They won't have the baggage we bring to this," he said.

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