Housing deal raises questions
Apparently all it takes is one person to make changes to a policy that governs and protects one of Aspen’s most sacred resources – employee housing. That’s how we see it, after City Manager Steve Barwick recently approached the Aspen City Council in a meeting billed as an “executive session” to inform the elected officials about a precedent-setting decision he was about to make. That decision allows Phil Overeynder – who oversees the municipal water, electric and streets departments – to live in city-owned housing for the rest of his life. The deal works like this: After Overeynder retires, he and his wife can live in a city-owned house for as long as they wish. Even if Overeynder dies before his wife does, she can reside there the rest of her life. Overeynder had tendered his resignation in order to take a similar post in California, and this was Barwick’s way of enticing him to stay in Aspen. Obviously it was a sweet deal that the Overeynders could not pass up.Overeynder is no doubt a valuable city worker, but we question the measures Barwick took to keep him here. First, Barwick effectively changed city policy – which states that city staffers lose their housing six months after they resign – to keep Overeynder put. Barwick then went to City Council to get its blessing in a secret meeting, under the guise of a “personnel matter.”More troubling, the city did not inform its staff (including its human resources manager) or the public about this decision, giving this historic move the appearance of a cover-up. Instead, staffers learned about this lifetime housing contract – and we all know how difficult it is to find (and keep) affordable housing – through a newspaper report, in which Barwick called it a “business decision.” Given that Barwick told Overeynder not to speak publicly about his housing deal, it’s clear Barwick knew the arrangement would raise eyebrows among the nearly 300 other city employees he oversees. We agree with the notion that employees shouldn’t have to leave town after they retire, but the city’s current housing inventory doesn’t make it possible to keep them put. We urge elected officials to deal with this issue sooner than later, and with the debate in public, not behind closed doors. Barwick and city attorney John Worcester defend the secret meeting with the City Council because it pertained to a personnel issue and didn’t break the state open meetings law. Maybe so, but we feel it violated its spirit. The public’s business should be done in the public. The next time Barwick decides to change how our government is run, it would behoove him to be more transparent. Such duck-and-cover tactics only feed public skepticism about how City Hall is run.
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