City manager makes call on housing policy
ASPEN Aspen’s city attorney on Monday said the City Council didn’t violate the state’s open meeting law last month when it met behind closed doors and granted lifetime housing to an employee.That’s because the City Council didn’t make a decision but instead was being advised by City Manager Steve Barwick that he planned to give Phil Overeynder and his wife, Deborah, housing for the rest of their lives.But that’s not how Barwick explained it last week when The Aspen Times learned that Overeynder received the lifetime housing, which was an unprecedented move by the city. Barwick said last Thursday that he asked the City Council if it would make an exception to the city’s housing policy.”We might be arguing semantics here,” said City Attorney John Worcester. “The council was not asked to make any decision. He just explained to them that he had a personnel issue and advised them on what he was planning to do.”The deal came after Overeynder attempted to resign last month to take a similar position in Ukiah, Calif. But because Barwick didn’t want to lose Overeynder as an employee, he changed city housing policy so Overeynder can retire in Aspen.Overeynder must work full time for the city for the next five years and then part time for five years, according to an agreement signed May 8. After that, he can continue living in the city-owned house on the Holden-Marolt Open Space where he’s lived since 1995. Overeynder, 59, oversees the city’s water, electric and streets departments. The current housing policy stipulates that if a city employee who lives in city-owned housing resigns, that employee has six months to vacate. There is no retirement housing benefit attached to any employee except Overeynder.The arrangement was discussed in executive session under the auspices of a personnel issue and therefore isn’t a matter that’s public, city officials said.But attorney Steve Zansberg, a consultant for the Colorado Press Association, said it appears that a decision was in fact made behind closed doors. “The point is how each of these people on the City Council voted so we can hold them accountable, but because it was behind closed doors we don’t know,” he said. “The point of open meetings law is so we know how our elected officials are conducting the public’s business.”Zansberg also questioned whether Barwick has the power to change policy on his own with no City Council direction. If he has the ability to change policies, Zansberg wonders what the role of the City Council is.According to the Colorado Open Meetings Law, “adopting any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation, or formal action must be done with full and timely notice to the public.”Zansberg said if the decision is challenged and is deemed to be in violation of the law, the change to the housing policy would be null and void.”The proper means of determining who is right is to bring this matter to the court,” he said.Overeynder’s deal was never made public, and in fact, he was asked by Barwick to not say anything to other city staff. The city’s human resource director, Rebecca Doane, also was never informed of the policy change.Several city workers who asked to remain anonymous have told The Aspen Times they believe Overeynder’s lifetime housing is unfair and said they wish they were offered a similar deal.Barwick defends the decision, saying Overeynder would not be easily replaceable. The public works director position was not advertised after Overeynder announced he was resigning. Barwick said he began finding ways to keep Overeynder within hours of his resignation.Overeynder and his wife pay $1,540 a month to live at 40176 Highway 82, the only house on the Marolt Open Space. Overeynder is one of the highest-paid employees in City Hall, making about $110,000 a year. He has worked for the city for 15 years.The issue of retaining aging employees is a challenge for many employers in Aspen and the surrounding area. Barwick and the City Council have discussed the issue in the past, and city staff is analyzing how the current policy could be changed.Overeynder said his offer in Ukiah was attractive because it would have been less taxing to retire there. The government job would have paid him 20 percent more, and the retirement benefits were a lot better than what Aspen offers.Mick Ireland, who had not yet been elected mayor at the time of the decision, said he thinks something as big as a policy change should be subject to public review. The issue was discussed in executive session with the new City Council last Friday. City Councilman Steve Skadron, who was not part of the original discussion, said he was unsure whether he would take the matter public because he is unfamiliar with the circumstances.City Councilman Dwayne Romero said he understands that there is a perception of unfairness and the decision was precedent-setting. However, he believes offering retirement housing is necessary in certain cases but he would prefer that it be discussed in public.”I’m always willing to consider the cost benefit of a similar proposal, it’s not a black and white situation,” he said. “I’m more of an open book kind of guy. It should stand the test.”Carolyn Sackariason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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