COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - It's almost $1.5 million from the pockets of Colorado Springs taxpayers. That's what's been paid out to 26 city employees who have left their posts since Mayor Steve Bach took office just shy of two years ago.
Bach, the city's first strong mayor, has taken full advantage of his authority to hire and fire department heads. Colorado Springs has lost a police chief, fire chief, city attorney, finance director, budget manager, airport director, human resources director, public works director, communications manager and others.
"In the last two years, we have watched hundreds of years of experience leave the city of Colorado Springs," said Jan Martin, the city's longest serving current city council member.
The departures have cost the city more than just experience. TARGET 13 obtained the severance package payouts through the Colorado Open Records Act. City Attorney Pat Kelly got $96,164, Budget Manager Lisa Bigelow got $59,527, and Police Chief Richard Myers got $71,989. Police officer Sydney Huffman, who resigned after being arrested, got $21,956. Huffman recently pleaded guilty to lying about domestic violence. Those figures don't include health care benefits or vacation and sick payouts. All told, nearly $1.5 million has been doled out.
Martin said she has heard concerns around Colorado Springs about the golden parachutes.
"I think people worry that, if we're not careful, it could appear as sort of hush money," Martin said. "That you pay people after they leave so that they don't talk about the circumstances."
Bach has also kept certain employees on the payroll as "consultants" after they left their posts. Fire Chief and Economic Vitality Chief Steve Cox received a total of $92,647 in severance including pay for his consultant work. More recently, airport director Mark Earle resigned after having differences with Bach. He will continue to collect his $165,898 annual salary through the rest of the year. Same for Fire Chief Richard Brown, who makes $147,657.
"It's just maybe an ongoing cost of the new form of government," said Martin.
She said when council members tried to approach Bach about the mass exodus, "he made it very clear to us that the hiring and firing of staff is really his responsibility."
TARGET 13 requested a sit-down interview with Bach on April 24. We were told by his senior communication specialist, "The Mayor will not be doing an on-camera interview with regards to this subject," but we could submit questions in writing.
TARGET 13 approached Bach at a town hall meeting, but as soon as he heard our question about employee severance, he walked away and would no longer respond.
"It disappoints me, he is my mayor, this is my community," said former council member Lisa Czelatdko, after seeing the video of Bach's response. "I mean, we have an obligation as elected officials to (answer), it's that simple, whether you like the questions or not."
Czelatdko, who opted not to run for a second council term, said before the election, work was under way to try to change policy on payouts. She said she hopes the six new faces on council will keep at it.
"Policy change needs to happen and probably sooner than later," she said.
Currently, the city's personnel policy says "the possibility of severance pay and/or benefits up to six months, for an eligible manager terminated without cause is authorized at the Mayor or Appointee's discretion."
The 26 city leaders paid severance in the last two years have left for different reasons; some have retired, some have resigned, some have been forced out.
After on-air commercials for this story started running last week, TARGET 13 was given short notice that Bach had time to talk to us that day. We were given 10 minutes with Bach, then he said he had to leave. He and his staff said there was no reluctance to talk about this issue and blamed Bach's busy schedule.
Here's part of what he had to say:
"We are working within the approved budget," said Bach. "And I would just say to you that a CEO should be able to make decisions sometimes that are difficult but that the CEO thinks are important to transform an organization."
Tuesday on KRDO Newschannel at 10 p.m., we'll have a full story with Mayor Bach's answers about how your tax money is being spent.