City Councilman Sean Paige is always saying that he wants a small, accountable government.
If the city's looking to hire workers, Paige wants to use temps. If a service can be contracted, Paige wants it moved out-of-house. And if city money is going to any organization — the Regional Economic Development Corporation of Colorado Springs comes to mind — Paige wants it audited.
So it isn't shocking that Paige has repeatedly demanded that community centers be handed over to a new nonprofit. However, the tone of his advocacy does seem out of character.
At Council meetings, Paige has insisted the city not fully vet the Community Partnership Project, the group led by political unknown Eric Phillips, who previously worked in property management and is now unemployed.
Raising his voice from the dais, Paige has insisted Council not run a background check on Phillips, although Phillips will presumably be working with children, and would likely receive more than $200,000 in taxpayer money if his plan is approved. Nor, in Paige's opinion, should Council demand evidence that Phillips is capable of maintaining programming at the Deerfield Hills and Hillside community centers, which in southeast and central Colorado Springs, respectively, serve at-risk kids and seniors.
Paige has worked closely with Phillips on efforts to rescue community centers for nearly a year now, introducing Phillips to his friends and connections, and becoming his most ardent supporter. Any Councilors asking for more from the man, Paige has told his colleagues, are showing a bias against Phillips — who happens to be an African-American from humble means.
At a budget markup session on Nov. 4, Paige said of funding CPP, "We need to take a chance and let this go." During an informal Council meeting four days later, he added, "I think everybody, we have to trust their motives are good."
Paige claims CPP is getting greater scrutiny than the group behind a separate plan for Meadows Park Community Center. However, other Councilors have pointed out that Meadows Park's public-private partnership interferes minimally with center operations. (See "The plans," below.)
Phillips has no formal education or licensing associated with running a center and its programs. Nor does he have direct experience. In fact, Deerfield and Hillside's directors say they have not seen Phillips spend a full day observing operations in either center, and have not heard him ask many questions about program management.
Phillips — who refused to talk to the Indy for this story or to answer a list of e-mailed questions — has previously said that he can figure things out as he goes along, if only he's given a chance.
And he'll get his chance.
Taking the plunge
Many Councilors found Phillips' plan — including an organizational chart without job descriptions, broad descriptions of programs to be offered, a list of partnerships and opportunities to be pursued, and a simplified budget — insufficient to earn him the keys to the centers in January. But rather than turn CPP away, a divided Council compromised: Phillips and his board (which includes a few well-known names like newly elected El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton) will work with city staff for the first three months of 2011 and present a more thorough transition plan to Council afterward. It's the same process the Meadows Park plan will follow.
Assistant City Manager Nancy Johnson says she'll make herself, as well as other top city officials, available to potential partners to explain financials and legal issues. Phillips, along with other partners, will also have the centers' staff at his disposal — some of whom might be given the option to stay on at a greatly reduced salary.
Or, Johnson says, Phillips could raise funds and hire his own people, presumably leaving current staff to train their replacements.
Johnson says that if Council approves a contract with CPP, the city would likely require that Phillips offer some kind of programming and turn in quarterly financial reports. But she says it's unlikely that Phillips would be required to maintain core programming, such as day care, preschool or meals for seniors. Nor would he need to pass a background check.
In essence, Johnson says, Phillips would be given the money — money sufficient to keep the centers open as is — to use more or less as he pleases.
"Obviously," Johnson says, "the partners get to make the final decision about what services they're going to offer."
While CPP is often referred to as a "neighborhood grassroots organization," many close to the centers feel the real grassroots organization was the Community Center Taskforce, a group of neighborhood folks who banded together last winter when the centers were facing closure. That group was also led by Phillips, but it has long since disbanded, and any vestiges of it have disappeared from CPP's board.
Phillips himself has little history with Deerfield Hills and Hillside. He lives on the north end of town, and has previously said that his three children have never participated in a community center program.
In contrast, current Deerfield director Jody Derington has been working full-time in centers for 16 years, and has a bachelor's degree in recreation administration. Hillside's Joan Clemons spent 20 years working her way up the ladder at centers.
Both say it'll be tough to train Phillips in a few months. One problem is that centers transform from season to season. In winter, Phillips won't learn how to manage the popular summer camps, or how to train the annual flood of young summer volunteers.
Then there's the everyday stuff. Take day care: More than 90 total children are in after-school care at Hillside and Deerfield, most from single-parent families who can't afford anyplace else. Centers charge around $55 a month.
"I personally know parents don't have the extra money," Derington says. "That's why they're coming to us in the first place."
But day cares are difficult to run. The state requires that directors and teachers have special educational backgrounds and certification. Any day care worker must pass a background check.
Phillips has said he believes that volunteers can help run core services at the centers. But given the requirements, says Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, "I don't how you would run it on volunteers."
There are regulations on how to deal with children with food allergies, and those who need daily doses of medication. On what kinds of toys can be offered to what age of kids, where those toys should be stored, and when and where they must be disinfected. On what kinds of hand towels kids can use, what kinds of mats they can nap on, and what immunizations they must have.
"It's not easy," Clemons says. "DHS has to have serious guidelines, and they do."
At Meadows Park: City staff and programs would remain in place, and city staff and the parks board would still be involved in decision-making. The plan would add a board of community members to assist in governing, expand program offerings, and bring in money from private donors. The Pikes Peak Community Foundation (which helps administer the Indy's Give! campaign) would hold the purse strings. Meadows, which is being headed up by a diverse group of volunteers, including some from Broadmoor Community Church, had around $75,000 in pledges weeks ago.
At Deerfield and Hillside: The Community Partnership Project would take over all functions, firing city staff unless they're willing to work at greatly reduced rates, reorganizing programs, and taking over the financial reins. Power would rest with an executive director (presumably Phillips) and a board he has selected. As of October, CPP had yet to raise any money for operations.