‘A culimination’ of missteps led to Aspen city manager’s exit
Perhaps indicative of the city of Aspen's insufficient public outreach on a number of government-led initiatives in the past year is the lack of response elected officials have received from City Manager Steve Barwick, who was asked to resign last week.
A majority of Aspen City Council members said they've rarely gotten a response to their requests for answers via email, phone messages or face-to-face meetings from Barwick.
"A lot of times I wouldn't hear back," Councilwoman Ann Mullins said.
She told The Aspen Times on Friday that she supports Barwick resigning after 19 years on the job but didn't support the abrupt process leading up to it, especially with Assistant City Manager Barry Crook's departure last week.
Crook was placed on administrative leave as a result of employee complaints and after his Dec. 11 tirade in which he called a citizen board that oversees the local housing program "mother f—ing extortionists."
He resigned days after the outburst.
Councilman Adam Frisch said that after not hearing back from Barwick regarding Crook's behavior and receiving no apology or acknowledgment from his office, he asked Mayor Steve Skadron via email Dec. 19 to schedule a performance review for Barwick.
"I sent an email saying we are rudderless and I was worried about the ramifications of Barry Crook's blow up," Frisch said. "I was not looking to take any action but wanted the five of us to have a conversation about the culture and the disconnect."
Then on Jan. 2, Councilman Ward Hauenstein trumped Frisch's request by asking Barwick in a face-to-face meeting to retire.
"He looked shocked," Hauenstein said. "He said, 'Me?'"
Hauenstein said he realized the ineffectiveness of the City Manager's Office when he received no response from Barwick seeking an explanation as to why the city had waited until the eleventh hour to request that the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) be part of a public-private partnership to develop 45 apartments.
At that mid-December meeting, the APCHA board asked for the agency to be financially covered for administrative costs associated with its role in the developments.
That's what prompted Crook's outburst after the meeting, telling APCHA Executive Director Mike Kosdrosky that he wasn't going to "let those mother f—ers extort me" within earshot of elected officials.
"The real straw that broke the camel's back was the APCHA thing," Hauenstein said, adding he wanted Barwick to acknowledge what had happened. "The way it was done was upsetting to me. … There was no apology. … I expect a response."
Mullins, Frisch and Hauenstein went before the APCHA board Dec. 19 apologizing for Crook and the city's role in the debacle.
By then, Barwick was on vacation, which he does not need permission to take, but rather informs council and staff that he is going be gone.
Skadron said he had emailed Barwick about Crook's outburst two days after it happened but also did not receive a response.
Barwick explained his non-response via email to The Aspen Times on Monday.
"Once I heard of this issue, I investigated and received Barry's resignation within one hour," he wrote. "I was out of town, on vacation and obviously didn't understand the depth of personal feelings involved. In retrospect, I should have immediately returned from vacation to personally deal with the issue and the resulting relationship challenges."
Mullins said she had been thinking it was a time for a change and with Crook's departure, she thought a longer-term phase out of Barwick would be appropriate.
"I have had issues with Steve but nothing as serious as Barry," Mullins said, adding the culture is too loose and there isn't enough accountability.
But on the other hand, Barwick is an asset and is extremely supportive of staff and loyal to the city, she noted.
Like Skadron, Mullins said she did not appreciate the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to have Barwick step down instead of council having a conversation first.
"I think it's incredibly short-sighted to accept that resignation," she said, adding that it's going to create a workload burden on those remaining in upper management, as well as the fact that it's election season and a busy time of the year.
Skadron said he did not support asking for Barwick's resignation, but the decision had already been made prior to last week's executive session and he couldn't change the outcome, even though he tried.
"It was a done deal even before it happened," he said, adding individual council members made it clear to Barwick that they had lost confidence in him.
So, knowing that there were three votes for him to step down, Barwick made the initial move in executive session, saying he'd resign if a majority of council wanted it.
That allowed him to receive a year's severance at his current salary of just over $195,000, along with a year in his home that will have to be sold back to the city, six months paid health insurance for him and his wife through COBRA and whatever vacation and sick time he has accrued.
CULMINATION OF MISSTEPS
It wasn't just Crook's outburst or the lack of response from Barwick that led to his resignation, but rather a culmination of missteps, council members said.
Councilman Bert Myrin hasn't supported Barwick since he was elected 3½ years ago.
Whether it was giving a department head housing for life, or buying land near the airport at an inflated price, or letting $600,000 to be lost in revenue in a multi-year scam with paid parking on his watch, Myrin lays those actions over the past decade at Barwick's feet, while acknowledging that council also bears some responsibility.
"Sometimes you have to let things collapse to demonstrate to people that it's happening," Myrin said. "It's like a steamroller, … the government can wear you out on every issue and sometimes you have to let the government wear itself out."
He added that his perception is that the city is run with an iron fist and that's why the government continues to have communication problems with the public.
And with the creation of a new director of communications position this year, it reinforces the walls of city government, Myrin said.
"If we involved the community we don't get what we want," he said, adding he believes it's intentional to not bring the public along with city initiatives for fear of pushback.
Frisch said he believes that to be the case in certain instances with recent government projects, including the botched mobility lab dubbed "SHIFT" that was going to be a $2.6 million experiment this summer, which included an $800,000 contract with Lyft that ultimately did not win the support of council because of pressure from local transportation companies.
"Somewhere between the mayor and the city manager there was a breakdown," Frisch said. "When the process broke down it's up to the city manager and one of the mayor's roles is to make sure the thing is baked … if you are going to have a moonshot project, you need a moonshot process and moonshot outreach."
Skadron rebuffed that notion and said ultimately what led to Barwick's termination was politics.
"Sixty percent of council is running for seats," Skadron said, referring to Mullins and Frisch running for mayor and Myrin running to keep his council seat in the March 5 election. "I wonder if this would be different if it wasn't election season. … If this was a year ago, it would be interesting to see what council would have done."
Hauenstein, who is serving his third year on council, said he forced the matter so it wouldn't be an election issue.
"It's broken and we are not getting any fresh ideas," he said. "It's a good time to make these changes."
19 YEARS IS UNIQUE
Skadron said if the majority of council feels that Barwick is disengaged, it can bleed into feelings of a continued lack of public outreach.
Or perhaps it's a function of too much reliance at the council table.
"Staff is really good at saying 'yes' to council and maybe council relies on that too much," Skadron said, adding elected officials don't run the city and rely on staff to execute projects.
Skadron said he prefers that Barwick remain in his job because attracting and retaining city managers is difficult, based on other communities that have experienced turnover.
"I support the value of consistency," he said. "There's a whole bunch of good things that Steve has done that he's delivered on."
Former City Clerk Kathryn Koch, who was in her role for 40 years before retiring in 2014, said she has seen three city managers be let go in various forms.
Koch served under seven city managers — more than 25 years of which were just two people — Barwick and Amy Margerum.
"When city councils and mayors turned over, they wanted their own manager," she said.
Barwick's 19-year tenure is unique, observers have noted.
"It's not normal for someone to be in this position that long," Hauenstein said. "He has served at the pleasure of councils and there has never been a council that has had the courage to call him (out)."