Most of the 31 Colorado Springs employees given severance pay to leave the city since Mayor Steve Bach took office in June 2011 agreed to keep their mouths shut about those severance agreements, and about city business as well.
In some cases, employees faced paying the city "damages" if they didn't hold up their end of the deal. For example, land development review division manager Dick Anderwald received $36,777 in severance pay but risked losing half of it if he blabbed.
While the agreements vary, one "non-disparagement" clause reads: "Employee shall not make negative comments relating to the City, its employees or representatives, its services, or the circumstances surrounding Employee's departure from the City's employment. The City shall not make negative comments relating to Employee's employment with the City."
It's one of the revelations that comes after the city reversed its decision to keep the severance agreements secret. The Independent had sought the agreements in February and again in April. In May, it engaged attorney Bill Louis, who pursued them on the Indy's behalf. The city failed to respond within the time allowed by law and then sought an extension.
The Indy threatened in a May 28 letter to file a lawsuit if the agreements weren't released by Friday, May 31. Late that day, the city said it would release the records, without explaining why it was reversing course. It followed through around midday Monday.
Of the 31 agreements, only one acknowledges a previous employment contract that required severance pay. Former City Attorney Patricia Kelly was entitled to six months' pay under her 2000 contract, which in 2011 amounted to $96,164.
Ten of the dismissals were due to "reduction in force," while others resulted from retirements, resignations or a desire by the employee and city to "resolve claims" that were pending (but otherwise not described). One such resignation agreement involved 31-year employee Steve Cox, who left last summer after serving as fire chief, interim city manager and in two high-level positions for Bach.
The total tab for severance doled out between July 2011 and May 2013 comes to more than $950,000. That doesn't include other concessions the city made, such as paying for health coverage, paying for unused sick time, and forgoing collection of $2,100 paid in education assistance to firefighter Scott Bond, who was with the city only 15 months and also collected $9,918 in severance pay.
In fact, four employees who spent less than a year with the city received substantial severance packages. One for streets division manager Rick Rudometkin totaled nearly $28,000; another for deputy city attorney Robert Frankel, nearly $21,000. But shorttimers weren't the rule. Those ousted represent a cumulative total of more than 300 years of service to the city.
All that leaves Councilor Jan Martin wondering about the mayor's severance program. "It's not uncommon for the private sector to require confidentiality agreements as well as non-disparagement agreements, but as I mentioned before, city government is not the private sector and should be much more open when employees are let go with severance packages," she writes via e-mail.
She adds that she's "uncomfortable" that ex-employees are prohibited from discussing their agreements and other city matters.
That's probably because it's not good policy, says Luis Toro, director of the nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch.
"The people of Colorado Springs would be better off knowing what might be going wrong inside their city government," Toro says in an e-mail, "instead of having their tax dollars used to buy the silence of potential critics."