City goes public with closed-door tapes
ASPEN Aspen City Hall on Thursday released the audiotape of two closed-door meetings in which the City Council granted the public works director housing for life in order to keep him on staff. The City Council earlier this week, in another closed-door session, agreed to release the tape after The Aspen Times requested making public the discussion on whether Aspen Public Works Director Phil Overeynder and his wife should live in city-owned housing for the rest of their lives. City Attorney John Worcester said he stands by the decision to hold the discussion privately because it involved a personnel matter and the City Council didnt violate the states open meetings law. He added that since the issue has become public, there is no reason not to release the tape. By doing your job, you made it controversial, he said. Protecting the privacy rights of Phil is moot at this point. We think the tapes substantiate what weve said. Overeynder attempted to resign last month to take a similar job in California that paid more, had better benefits and was in a city where he could retire in an affordable home. City Manager Steve Barwick immediately countered by offering Overeynder lifetime housing, but not before he sought the blessing of the City Council. Barwick and Worcester called a special executive session May 4, just hours after Barwick asked Overeynder if lifetime housing would keep him here. The council agreed to waive the required 24-hour notice of the executive session and held an emergency meeting. When Barwick informed the council that Overeynder had resigned, there was a loud outcry from council members clearly upset at the potential loss. Time was of the essence since Overeynder had accepted the job in California. Im asking you for permission to let me enter into a contract for a professional rental agreement, Barwick told the City Council on May 4. [Overeynder] has not agreed to this. I put this on the table an hour ago with him. He did say that it changes everything because hes in this situation of Where do I go [after I retire]? According to the agreement signed on May 8, Overeynder must work full time for the city for the next five years and then part time for five years. After that, he and his wife, Deborah, can retire in the house on the Holden-Marolt Open Space, where they have lived since 1995. In their discussions, council members voiced their concern about setting a precedent, especially since other employees in the past have asked for similar deals (see related story below). But in the end, they all agreed that Overeynder was worth saving. The current policy stipulates that if an employee who purchased a house in the citys inventory resigns, that employee has six months to vacate. If a city employee rents a house or apartment and quits, that employee has 30 days to vacate. Under the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority rules, residents can retire in their units after turning 65. There is no retirement housing benefit attached to any city employee except Overeynder. Im asking for this one employee and one employee only, Barwick told the council May 4. I consider him to be crucial at this point. Hes an expert in so many fields that wed be behind the eight ball in so many things. Barwick and council members have defended the unprecedented move, saying it was a simple business decision, and that Overeynder would not be easily replaceable. Thats because there is no one underneath him who is qualified for the job, and his depth of knowledge is unmatched. We did not have anyone on staff who could accomplish the job, said Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss, adding that a succession plan is needed. We need to promptly develop a program so we dont find ourselves in this position again. Barwick rationalized that from a business standpoint, it would be about 15 years in opportunity costs to rent the unit to Overeynder for the rest of his life. And Overeynder is worth much more than that, Barwick said. Everyone at the table agreed. In explaining the decision to the press, Barwick initially said he asked for permission from the council but later he said he was merely advising the council that he would be making a change to the housing policy. According to the city charter, the City Council is the policy-determing body and the city manager executes those policies. But Barwick said there are gray areas and Overeynders compensation package is one of them. Barwick knew that the decision wouldnt sit well with other city staff so he asked Overeynder not to say anything about the deal. Barwick didnt inform his other 280-plus employees about the deal until Tuesday 11 days after it became public and more than a month after the decision. Barwick acknowledged to the council in an executive session June 15 that he expected criticism. We knew we would take some grief from existing employees of whom we said no go to on that subject, Barwick said. Mayor Mick Ireland said a better way to handle it would have been to be more upfront about it. It might have been better to decide to offer him a contract in executive session and ratify that on the agenda, then you are covered because you have a public presentation of the contract, Ireland said. It would have looked better with the same result. Barwick has maintained that it was a personnel issue and as such, he wanted it handled privately. But he admitted in his June 26 memo that he should have informed city staff directly instead of them reading it about it in the press. Ireland added that theres no question that Overeynder is one of the most valuable employees City Hall has. His knowledge on water rights on a state and regional level is invaluable. When you are at those [state] meetings you need to have that guy there, Ireland said. It would have been a horrible loss.
It looks like the citys public works director might not be the only government employee who gets lifetime housing in order to retire here. During closed-door discussions, council members and city staff spoke about the future of the citys housing program for its employees. The issue came up after elected officials agreed to give Public Works Director Phil Overeynder lifetime housing. City Councilman Jack Johnson said there are several city employees to whom he would like to make a similar offer. There are a handful of other employees who perform at such high levels that, in my opinion, they do become indispensable, Johnson said. But so far, no other city employee other than Overeynder has received lifetime housing. Theyve certainly asked, though. About a year and a half ago, a police officer and other city employees approached the City Council and asked if they could retire in their homes, which City Hall owns. The answer they got was, an interesting subject but not at this time, City Manager Steve Barwick told the City Council in a June 15 executive session. The council directed staff to go out and do an analysis on the future of affordable housing for city employees. Its one of our top 10 goals for this year. Its not finished, but its close. The issue of employees approaching retirement and their ability to afford to stay in the Roaring Fork Valley is not a new one. Elected officials for the past couple of years have been discussing how to house senior citizens and retiring employees. Its a difficult question since there are only 2,400 affordable units in the housing inventory and only 44 specifically for city employees. During a May 4 executive session in which the council granted Overeynder the retirement benefit, Councilman Torre said he had recently attended a meeting regarding senior citizen and retirement housing in the Roaring Fork Valley. The situation looks bleak. This is an issue that is not singular, its communitywide, Torre said.
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