COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - After initially refusing an interview, Mayor Steve Bach is answering concerns about the mass exodus of top city leaders and the almost $1.5 million paid in severance packages since he took office nearly two years ago.
"This is typical in an organization, whether it's public or private, that's going through fundamental change," Bach said. "We are re-inventing the city government and in the process, change will happen. Some people will leave, others will come on board."
Bach, a Republican, won the city's first strong mayor election against Democrat Richard Skorman, 57 percent to 43 percent in June 2011. Since then, Bach has taken full advantage of the power to hire and fire department heads.
"I was elected, I believe, by a landslide, I think on the premise I would ask tough questions and make hard decisions," Bach said. "And I just hope my fellow citizens would judge me on the totality of my performance."
Since Bach was elected, almost $850,000 has been paid in severance to 26 city employees. That figure jumps to $1.48 million when health benefits, sick and vacation payouts are factored in. See the figures here.
Bach has also kept certain employees on the payroll as "consultants" after they left their posts, including Fire Chief and Economic Vitality Chief Steve Cox, Colorado Springs Airport Director Mark Earle and Fire Chief Richard Brown.
When asked about the big expenses, Bach emphasized that he is working within the approved budget and abiding by the city's charter and personnel policy. He said while people can pick on this one issue, what's important is the "big picture."
"Most importantly, we're operating within the approved budget. Yes, I have spent some money on transition expenses with people who have left," said Bach. "Any time you change a CEO in an organization or you change the direction of any organization, that will have fallout, that will have consequences. So, I agree, a number of good people have left. I will tell you we have a great team in place now."
When TARGET 13 first requested an interview with Bach on April 24, his senior communication specialist told us, "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.
One week later, and after commercials for the story had started airing, we were told on short notice that Bach had time for an interview. He had to leave after 10 minutes.
Bach and his communication staff said there was no reluctance to talk about this issue, Bach just had a busy schedule.
Under the strong mayor form of government city council has no authority on hiring and firing, but they can change personnel policy to put new limits on severance pay outs.
TARGET 13 contacted every member of council for this story.
Council President Keith King said there were no specific plans to put new limits on severance packages, but that he would be working to maximize council's authority, especially on budgeting.
"We are doing what we want to call a 'strong council' to compliment the strong mayor," said King. "I'll tell you, since I've been elected to council, there's a lot of unresolved questions and there's a gray area in the charter in terms of what council's responsibilities are and what the mayor's responsibilities are."
Council member Jan Martin said she would be open to reviewing current policy.
"It would be possible for council to take a look at the personnel manual and maybe place some restrictions on these types of payouts," Martin said.
Martin said there has already been discussions about limiting payouts for unused sick and vacation days. In her severance package, former City Attorney Pat Kelly got a vacation payout of $57,192 and a sick payout of $41,787. Former Budget Manager Lisa Bigelow got $28,425 for vacation and $27,474 for sick.
Council member Val Snyder replied by email writing, "My biggest concern is the large amount of institutional memory that went out the door along with the people. In my two years of serving on City Council, I've found municipal government can be very complex. There are reasons for processes and procedures evolving over the years and that knowledge often is not reflected on new hires with little or no local government experience."
Council member Merv Bennett replied by email, "I am comfortable with the Mayor's handling of these matters."
Other council members said they had no comment or did not reply to the interview request.