When Colorado Springs City Council members received a resignation email from City Attorney Chris Melcher on Wednesday evening, they weren't shocked.
They thanked him for his work and wished him well, but they plan to keep moving forward with defining a process that allows the City Council to hire an outside attorney when it needs to, council members said.
It's an issue that has been on their minds and agenda for months and has played out in a series of recent emails, memos and public meetings. It was spurred by the council's belief that Melcher's legal advice was too closely aligned with the mayor's political position, which prompted the council to seek independent legal counsel.
The ability to hire their own attorney for legal advice on issues, such as stormwater projects and funding, will shape the city's charter and further define the roles of the executive and legislative branches, council members said Thursday.
Some members met this week to craft procedures for hiring outside counsel.
Residents should think of it as getting a second opinion on critical issues, Councilman Merv Bennett said. "In the charter, it says if council feels the city attorney needs assistance on litigation or on a certain project, it says we can do that. But there had not been a procedure - to me, that is what this was all about."
In recent months, Melcher had advised the City Council that hiring an outside attorney was not necessary and would only create confusion and possibly dueling legal opinions. The city attorney, he said, represents the mayor and the council and it's a model that works in cities across the country, including Denver.
In September, the council voted to set aside $35,000 to hire an attorney for advice on stormwater issues. The council was disappointed with the response it received from the city attorney's office, said Keith King, council president. Instead of legal advice on possible funding options, the council received pages of policy pushing the mayor's agenda, he said.
"I don't think it was a personality conflict," King said about the council and Melcher. "It was a fundamental issue that council wasn't getting legal representation that we needed."
The city attorney issue represents a bigger struggle for power between the City Council and the mayor in the city's strong mayor-council form of government. Two years after voters elected the city's first strong mayor, there still is vague language in the city's charter and codes about the responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches.
In one area of the charter, it says the city attorney is the legal adviser of the mayor, council, commissions and department heads. In another area of the charter, it says the City Council can hire an outside attorney to assist the city attorney.
"The city hires outside attorneys for short-term, specific work all the time," Councilman Andy Pico said. "That is all council is looking for - in researching something like stormwater, we would like to be able to get some advice."
Councilwoman Jan Martin said the next city attorney should have experience in municipal law because the role requires defining the roles of the executive and legislative branches.
"I know we've had our problems with Chris Melcher, and council has not felt our needs have been adequately served," Martin said. "A change might be good for council."