Aspen Times editorial: Aspen city council should stick with previous agreement with outgoing city manager
January 24, 2019
The winds of change have blown through Aspen City Hall. Two top city administrators — Assistant City Manager Barry Crook and City Manager Steve Barwick — are out.
Whether due to insufficient communication or an intentional lack of transparency, Aspen City Council members can agree that the recent shake-up is the culmination of a series of missteps.
Council on Monday is expected to consider an employment contract to name Sara Ott interim city manager. She is currently an assistant city manager and one of only a couple in City Hall who could be tapped to do the job. She is the right choice to lead the municipal government during this transition.
Council also will consider Monday the separation agreement of Barwick, who was asked to resign earlier this month after 19 years in the same position.
In 2010, Barwick negotiated an employment contract that offered him a severance package of a year's salary, as well as accrued vacation and sick time if he was terminated.
Per city policy, he also gets to stay in the home he bought from the municipal government for six months before selling it back.
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But he is poised to get much more than that. Knowing he was likely going to be asked to leave, Barwick suggested to council in executive session two weeks ago that he get six months of health insurance for him and his wife, and a year in the house.
We suggest that council stick with what was negotiated in 2010. If council members didn't like what that contract had in it, they should have renegotiated when Barwick had his last performance review a year ago.
Allowing Barwick to negotiate the terms of his separation after the fact rewards him for doing an unsatisfactory job and hampers the city's ability to recruit a new city manager.
We acknowledge that it's difficult to attract and retain good government administrators in expensive resort towns such as Aspen. That's why we need every tool we have; most important is the housing.
And there is no reason that the city should pay Barwick more than $9,000 for health insurance. Surely that taxpayer money could be better spent elsewhere — such as recruiting or public outreach.
In addition to getting back the $210,500 purchase price of his home, Barwick will be leaving with more than $200,000 in cash.
He is expected to step down by March 1. One month is the right timing for a smooth transition and handing the reins over to Ott, who should be making the decisions while Barwick remains in an advisory role.
Four of the five council members said the recent lack of public outreach on a number of city initiatives and general non-communication from Barwick contributed to his forced resignation.
We need stronger leadership from our elected officials to protect the council-manager form of government that we have.
Barwick has had plenty of missteps during his long tenure, but it's been previous councils that have allowed it to continue with no ramifications.
And that includes the current council, which must bear some responsibility for the lack of communication with the public and the general unrest against City Hall by many in the community.
And now we are in the unenviable position of trying to replace a city manager during a changing of the guard.
The way Barwick was asked to resign was dysfunctional at best and shouldn't be indicative of how council hires and fires in the future.
This process didn't allow for council to have a real discussion about Barwick's performance, how it could be improved upon and how his departure would affect the general order of city government.
Instead, it was done with individual conversations among council members and Barwick, and the decision was made before elected officials gathered in executive session Jan. 7.
With an upcoming March 5 election that will see three of the current council members running for a seat and a new council not being seated until June, it's unclear how the process will play out.
A headhunting firm will be hired soon and the search for a new city manager will begin. It could be that a new city manager would be hired by one council and work for another.
We think Ott and city human resources director Alissa Farrell should lead the charge in forming a hiring committee that has current council members, citizens and council-elect members on it.
Hopefully by summer, we have new leadership on the second floor of City Hall and in council chambers so we can move forward in building our resort community with a clear, unified vision.
Barwick has obviously done many things right to stay in a position — that can be very political at times — for almost two decades.
We can say with sincerity that overall he has been effective in managing a talented arsenal of staff, as well as a world-class international resort community that is the envy of many cities in the country and around the globe.
Our quality of life and forward-thinking initiatives that have been carried out over the years can be attributed to his leadership.
We wish Steve well in whatever the future holds for him.
The Aspen Times editorial board consists of Aspen Times staff members, including Publisher Samantha Johnston and Editor David Krause.
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