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Big news will follow outgoing city attorney 

The man at the center of two of the city's biggest controversies announced his resignation last Wednesday, with questions still surrounding Colorado Springs' state tourism application and a lawsuit over the lease of city-owned Memorial Health System.

City Attorney Chris Melcher says he'll leave Jan. 31 after a tumultuous relationship with two different City Councils seated during his two-year stint. A Yale Law School grad and a public-sector newbie, Melcher was described by Councilor Don Knight as "a major hurdle between the Council and the mayor being able to work together." (More on that later.)

Unfinished business on Melcher's watch includes the city's $218.6 million City for Champions application, seeking $82.1 million in state sales tax money. As an adviser to the city's project team, Melcher helped assemble a plan to build four tourist venues, including a downtown stadium/events center, that financial analysts have since found incomplete, vague and overly optimistic (see p. 18).

His signature project, though, was the Oct. 1, 2012, Memorial lease. The city has been sued by the Public Employees' Retirement Association, which contends the city can't opt out of the system and leave the other local government division members to pay retirement benefits for the roughly 4,000 Memorial employees who are now employed by the University of Colorado Health. PERA is seeking $201.2 million from the city; the city contends it owes nothing even though UCH gave the city $185 million for the PERA obligation.

PERA attorney Adam Franklin said last week the case is being handled by a newly hired private judge, who is reviewing motions. The law firm of Hogan Lovells represents the city.

Councilor Jill Gaebler, for one, says she's "concerned" about the path the city has chosen in the PERA case. And Council President Keith King says Council might try to gain more say-so over the direction of city litigation, given Melcher's pending departure.

"We want a bigger voice, and we want more opportunity to be involved," he says, "and Chris leaving gives us an indication we can have that opportunity."

Among the issues that defined Melcher's public image was the question of whose interests he served. Though the city attorney is supposed to represent all facets of city government, Council has vociferously complained that Melcher promoted the mayor's policies to the detriment of Council's positions. The debate came to a head last month when Councilors said they'd fire him if they could, docked his pay by about $4,000, and appropriated $35,000 to hire outside legal counsel on stormwater issues.

Melcher's departure apparently won't change Council's course on hiring outside legal counsel or on stormwater (where their preferred approach for undoing a project backlog differs from that of Bach). "We're going to stick to our guns," King says.

Council also may assert its authority to set the new city attorney's salary, a privilege it didn't exercise when Bach hired Melcher at $183,736 a year in October 2011. And Council has drafted a measure that would give it seats on the mayor's selection committee, afford it more time to review appointees' qualifications and interview appointees, and authorize a public hearing.

Knight says it will be discussed at a work session Tuesday, Nov. 12.

"I really hope the executive branch involves Council in the hiring of the new city attorney," Gaebler says. "It would be a really nice olive branch to have us be a part of that."

Through a spokesperson, Bach says he can't comment on a proposed policy he hasn't seen.

zubeck@csindy.com

  • The unfinished business on Chris Melcher's watch.

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