‘Fish stick clause’ remains part of official Aspen bureaucracy
August 27, 2017
Anyone who works in an office can relate to the situation.
A co-worker brings a leftover piece of fish for lunch, pops it in the office kitchen microwave and unleashes a stink that offends for the rest of the afternoon.
And while the offense often provokes heated protests from fellow employees, it doesn't usually become enshrined in official rules of office conduct. Unless, that is, you work in either the city of Aspen or Pitkin County's community development departments, where for years preparing fish sticks has been specifically and officially prohibited.
"The city shall provide office space, at no charge, to the county community development department on the third floor of City Hall in the current amount and general configuration on the condition that microwaving fish sticks is strictly prohibited," according to the newest intergovernmental agreement between the two departments approved by Pitkin County commissioners last week.
The agreement also covers generally mundane issues such as who oversees the contractor-licensing program, how to coordinate building code changes and office hours.
Eagle-eyed Commissioner Steve Child first spotted the odd rule Aug. 9 when Brian Pawl, the county's chief building official, first presented the new version of the agreement to the county board.
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"I want to know if there was an incident about microwaving fish sticks on the third floor of City Hall," Child said.
Pawl laughed and told him that city Community Development officials had been "adamant" about keeping the fish-stick clause in the agreement.
"Yes, there was a fish sticks incident," Pawl said. "Yes, they did away with fish sticks, fish products and broccoli.
"They didn't do away with Brussels sprouts. I was surprised about that."
"Was it our fault or theirs?" Child asked.
"I don't remember who the culprit was," Pawl said.
In a subsequent interview, Pawl said that in crafting the newest agreement, he asked city officials if he could take the "fish sticks clause" out.
"I was trying to reduce the amount of information in the document," he said. "I wanted to include important facts."
The answer from the city was a resounding "no," Pawl said.
"They said definitely not," he said. "It was an important part of the agreement to keep in."
In fact, officials discussed adding broccoli to the offending foods not allowed to be microwaved on the third floor, though it never appeared in the official version, Pawl said. And he said he's not sure if breaking the rule would scuttle the agreement.
"I don't know how far this would be taken if somebody broke the fish-stick clause," he said. "But they do retain that option (to end it)."
Jessica Garrow, the city's Community Development director, said she thinks it's unlikely that breaking the rule would have such a result.
"It's grounds for us to say, 'Hey, remember we don't microwave fish (in the office),'" she said.
This is the third agreement between the two departments to feature the fish-stick clause, Garrow said, and she confirmed lobbying to keep it in the latest version.
"There's no major conflict or issue or anything," she said. "We just said, 'Hey, it's in there. Let's keep it in there.'
"It's a bit of fun in an office environment."
Garrow said she had no idea who the original fish stick offender was and suspects it was "happening on both sides."
Pitkin County Community Development Director Cindy Houben said the fish-stick clause has been part of the IGA for at least five and possibly 10 years.
"Somebody cooked fish sticks in the back and it really smelled," she said, adding that former city Community Development Director Chris Bendon first added the clause. "I think he thought it was really funny."
Bendon, who now runs a land-use consulting firm in Aspen, confirmed Friday that he did contribute the clause years ago, and said it was meant to be both serious and amusing.
"Someone actually microwaved fish sticks," Bendon said. "The fish sticks smell just assassinated everyone.
"I'm not a fish sticks guy. It was hideous."
He said he's not sure it occurred more than once, but that once was enough.
"I think I might have gone overboard," Bendon said. "I think I threatened to move the microwave into the office of the person who did it."
He also said he doesn't remember exactly who did it.
"Being a city person, I'm sure it was the county," Bendon said.
Regardless of who microwaved fish sticks — which nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed was a terrible method of preparing fish sticks — the incident continues to influence lunch choices on the third floor of City Hall, Pawl said.
"Yeah, people are cautious about what they microwave," he said. "There's a peer pressure thing (now)."