Aspen city manager: Petition ‘politicizes’ hiring process
A group of Aspen residents, some of whom spearheaded the passage of Referendum 1 and the defeat of Base2 Lodge, are circulating a petition that aims to influence how the city’s Community Development Department is run and who runs it.
For starters, one of their goals is to change the office’s name to the Planning and Building Permit Department. Their petition also asks that the city “make no commitments” to promote anyone within the department to its director. Additionally, they’re asking the City Council to appoint a citizens’ commission of at least five members who would work with City Manager Steve Barwick to establish criteria and a search process for the new director.
The petition makes other pledges, as well, and comes after Chris Bendon announced his resignation as director of Community Development earlier this month. Historic Preservation officer Sara Adams also tendered her resignation, as both she and Bendon will launch a planning firm in January.
As of 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, the petition had collected 38 signatures, according to Aspen activist Maurice Emmer. Some of the signatures belong to people who don’t live within city limits, while others are from such former City Council members as Michael Behrendt, Jack Johnson and Frank Peters.
“We’ve suggested a path,” said Emmer, one of the circulators of the email petition. “We think this is a good path for the city to take for all of the reasons stated in it.”
The city’s Home Rule Charter, however, poses a challenge to the petition, said City Attorney Jim True.
“The charter provides discretion on how people are hired,” he said. “(The petition) can’t be a mandate for a council to do this.”
The charter notes that council members cannot “interfere with the city manager or other city officers to prevent him from exercising his judgment in the appointment or employment of officers and employees in the administrative service.” The charter also says the city manager has the power to “hire, suspend, transfer and remove city employees.”
Emmer said he and others are well-versed with the Home Rule Charter. But it is the council’s job to give the city manager direction on major hires, he said.
“It is City Council’s responsibility to supervise the city manager and to give him policy direction,” Emmer said. “City Council is not doing the city manager any favors by failing to give him such direction. But City Council has been derelict and has not performed this responsibility. City Council has every right, indeed every responsibility, to give the city manager clear direction in matters such as the subject of this petition.”
Emmer said the petition could “easily be turned into a resolution adapted by City Council. It would be instructions to the city manager that ‘here’s what we’d like you to do.’”
Barwick said “there will be plenty of opportunity for the public to participate” in the hiring process.
He said the finalists for both jobs, which haven’t been advertised yet, will have meet-and-greet sessions with members of the Planning and Zoning and Historic Preservation commissions. Both of them, Barwick said, serve the need for a citizens’ committee like the one the petition proposes.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got two citizen committees — the (Historic Preservation Commission) and (Planning and Zoning) — who have been vetted by City Council,” he said.
Barwick said the petition’s goal “appears to politicize the position, and that is the last thing we want. Our goal is to hire a skilled professional and impartial Community Development director.”
Some of those behind the petition have been critical of City Council, the city manager and the Community Development Department. They have contended that there’s a disconnect between the city and the electorate, and that developers have exploited the city’s land-use code.
“There is widespread public concern about the impact on our community of many actions and recommendations of (Community Development) in recent years,” the petition states.
Ward Hauenstein, who was to present the petition to City Council at its meeting Monday, supported Referendum 1, an amendment to the Home Rule Charter passed by voters in May. Referendum 1 precludes the City Council from approving downtown land-use applications that seek variances on height, mass, parking, affordable housing and view planes. Instead, applications seeking such waivers would require a public vote.
They also helped defeat developer Mark Hunt’s campaign to build a lodge at the site of the Conoco service station. In the November election, Aspen voters shot down Base2 Lodge, with nearly two-thirds in opposition.
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