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City manager's silent exit 

Between the Lines

As quietly as Penny Culbreth-Graft entered our world at the start of 2008, she slipped away just as unpretentiously last week.

No fanfare, no public event or statement, no creating any kind of stage for herself to make a grand exit as the Colorado Springs city manager.

And no putting others through trying to talk her out of resigning after two-plus years of running a city that lost — and couldn't regain — its financial equilibrium.

Instead, Culbreth-Graft silently typed out her resignation letter to Mayor Lionel Rivera and City Council, saying April 16 would be her last day — and walked away.

Just like that. She even called in sick Monday, saying she might not work all week.

That's no surprise. Culbreth-Graft didn't want that extra attention, just as she didn't come here to be royalty. Change agent, yes. Aggressive reorganizer, without a doubt. But politician or star, no way.

She never really had a chance, either, to leave a lasting positive mark on Colorado Springs. Her idea of success would have been streamlining the city operation, saving money where needed, improving services to people, forging new and helpful partnerships around the community.

Not dismantling much of the government she inherited. Not cutting $90 million from the city budget in 26 treacherous, stress-heavy months. And certainly not eliminating almost 550 jobs from the city's payroll.

Despite having been forced into all of the above, from every indication she earned broad respect among those she worked with. But for her, this wasn't ever a popularity contest. She was pleasant and cordial, never fake or insincere, but she wasn't trying to become everyone's close friend.

Maybe she'll continue living here, but Culbreth-Graft knows her place in Colorado Springs' history won't be special. She'll go down as the reluctant undertaker, and for showing her forceful side mainly in fighting to avoid cutting city workers' salaries.

As Councilor Jan Martin put it, "I think Penny will be remembered for coming here in one of the most difficult times for us, and doing an admirable job of trying to hold the city together."

Some cynics still might view Culbreth-Graft as a failure. But she had no idea that the bottom would fall out of the city's revenues. Nobody knew.

If she does speak publicly before her official departure, she might label her service to the Springs as frustrating and unfulfilling. She also might confirm what many believe — that she battled as long as she could, but that in facing yet another nightmare of $27 million in more cuts, she hit the wall. Her resignation letter did hint of a new "future direction" by city leaders, as if she couldn't go along, but Martin says "the concept of a 'new direction' was never even mentioned in any conversations. I'm not sure what she meant by that."

And no, Culbreth-Graft apparently didn't confide in anyone from the city that the end was near, even after her positive evaluation on March 15, just four days before her resignation.

"She was more open with me than some of my other colleagues," Councilor Scott Hente says. "After her evaluation, the two of us sat around and had a very frank discussion. She was criticized for being blatantly honest about how the city was doing, and that stung her a little bit. But she was looking forward to the future, even with more issues, more layoffs, more cutbacks.

"In the end, though, I wonder if she lost the internal drive to keep pushing. But as much as we talked during her time here, I had no idea this was coming. When we walked out the door that day, she was smiling."

The city's not likely to find equilibrium any time soon. There's a campaign brewing to change the city to a "strong mayor" form of government, as in Denver. That probably means we'll be looking at an interim city manager through the April 2011 municipal election. In the meantime, the next cuts could hurt worse than ever, from police and fire reductions to shutting down parks and rec entirely.

"I'm looking for a silver lining," says Hente, "and I'm not sure I'm seeing one."

Today, all we know for sure is that Penny Culbreth-Graft won't be part of the solution. But this much needs to be said: She wasn't the problem, either.

routon@csindy.com

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