An investigation has been launched, looking into the job performance of the executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, a regional planning agency that administers federal, state and local transportation money, as well as other federal and state programs.
Rob MacDonald finds himself under the microscope in the wake of 30 percent staff turnover in two years, public disclosure of ex-employees' personal information, and questions about whether the agency is capturing its share of state and federal funding for roads.
PPACG board chairman Andy Pico, a Colorado Springs city councilor, declined to discuss the investigation.
"Anything that's a personnel issue, it's something we can't talk about," Pico says, later adding, "We're looking into it without wanting to be specific about it. I don't want to jeopardize anything that's underway."
Pico predicts the investigation will conclude in early November.
Sixteen municipal and county governments in El Paso, Teller and Park counties compose PPACG, formed in 1967. The agency provides a forum for local officials to deal with issues that cross boundaries, with primary focus on transportation, air and water quality and the federally funded Area Agency on Aging.
With about three dozen employees, PPACG also administers the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, supported with a 1 percent sales tax in El Paso County, and oversees millions of dollars in state, federal and local funding for roads.
The organization has come into the spotlight recently as officials search for a way to fund the widening of Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock, a 17-mile stretch that lies outside PPACG's service area, disqualifying it from PPRTA funding.
MacDonald, hired in 1999, reports to a board composed of elected officials from cities, towns and counties in the PPACG service area. In the last four years, he has been rated by most board members as "excellent" in working with them, maintaining fiscal responsibility, managing the agency and coordinating with member governments and the community. Only a few said he "needs improvement." Though a dozen board members evaluated MacDonald in 2012 and 2013, only the five-member executive committee did so in 2014 and 2015. None of the evaluation forms, obtained via an open-records request, name the evaluators.
In 2014, one board member noted having "no personal knowledge or experience" upon which to judge how MacDonald works with member governments and the community, and in 2015 one member said he needs improvement in nearly every category. MacDonald has received annual pay raises ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent since 2007, except for 2010, when he got no raise. He was paid bonuses in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2016 totaling $15,000, and his annual pay has risen from $108,396 in 2006 to $136,654 in 2016.
Colorado Springs City Councilor Jill Gaebler, elected in 2013, says she began seeking a more thorough evaluation of MacDonald after feeling ill-equipped to judge his performance. She acknowledges that board members can be "distracted" from PPACG business by their primary duties as elected officials, which, she says, allows the director to operate "autonomously without direction from the board." Hence, last year, Gaebler sought a "360 evaluation" of MacDonald that would solicit input from employees, board members and community leaders. She also sought a quarterly "dashboard" report on the director's activities, including employee turnover, which she'd heard was rising.
Though he resisted the assignment initially, MacDonald issued his first report on April 11. Included was a list of 10 former employees who had left in 2015 and 2016, with reasons they left. The report was given to PPACG's board and posted publicly on its website. That same day, according to documents obtained by the Independent, three ex-employees wrote emails to the agency objecting to their information being disclosed, and accusing MacDonald of misrepresenting their reasons for leaving.
One protested his label of "supervisor incompatibility," calling it "false." Another objected to the reason given by MacDonald as "position/career goal mismatch," saying it "wasn't entirely true" and "breaks employee-employer confidentiality." Another said MacDonald reported the employee left for "medical reasons," which the employee said was "blatantly false."
PPACG removed the report from the website within a day or so, and MacDonald responded two days later to the employees and board, blaming HR director Barb Watson. "The detailed table was created by the PPACG Human Resources Director for me to review," he wrote. "Both she and I used memory to identify reasons why people had left PPACG."
Not true, Watson wrote to MacDonald, saying, "This is not quite what happened. ... You added the information that they are calling erroneous and I did not proof your final document."
That same day, Gaebler wrote to one of the ex-employees and copied MacDonald and others. She said she was "confounded" by the release, "especially since I, as a board member, requested the same information back in December 2015 and was told it was confidential."
"However," she continued, "now that the information has been released, I would like to investigate the veracity of the employee information and data included within the report, as it speaks to the integrity of all information provided by the Executive Director and puts into question the other data reported within the ED's dashboard."
Since then, employees have reached out to Gaebler, she says, sensing she is their "ally."
"They told me their personal stories in regards to how they were treated at work," Gaebler says. "They felt the organization was toxic. All these employees who talked to me were women."
One former employee described the work ethic at PPACG as "retired in place," and other sources say PPACG has been hit with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint regarding workplace climate issues.
Gaebler and Pico declined to discuss those matters, but Gaebler expressed concern in an interview that PPACG lacks legal counsel. "We need to be sure we're running a tight ship and the executive director is following the law and treating employees appropriately," she says.
Pico says Mountain States Employers Council, an agency that works under contract on employment law, surveys and training, is handling PPACG's legal work on the EEOC complaint and other "employment issues" that he didn't explain. The city attorney and county attorney handle legal questions regarding open records and open meetings, he says.
Asked if the agency needs its own lawyer, Pico says, "It hasn't been an issue yet." And asked if the April release of the employee information is a legal issue needing attention, he says, "I don't want to talk about that issue right now. No one's sued us, if that's what you mean."
Not all who left PPACG dispute the reasons described by MacDonald. Rich Muzzy, PPACG's environmental planning manager for 17 years, left in late 2015 for a job with the Sacramento (California) Metropolitan Air Quality District to be closer to his family, MacDonald wrote. Muzzy confirmed to the Indy that's why he resigned.
The executive committee has directed MacDonald to compile a strategic plan for PPACG, the first in its history. Pico says the plan will help "position ourselves a little better." Until now, PPACG expressed a vision for each program but not for the agency as a whole, he says.
"That's not to say we don't do planning," he says. "We have the 2050 transportation plan." But board members, after they checked out other planning councils' practices, "want to step up the game a little bit."
Gaebler notes the Denver Regional Council of Governments, for example, has "a fabulous vision" that provides unity. "We don't get the same kind of funding as DRCOG does," she says. "Because this agency isn't unified and working together, it hurts us as a region as we're trying to reach out to CDOT [Colorado Department of Transportation] on transportation issues."
For example, Pico says the agency has searched for at least four years for funds for the I-25 widening project, but nothing has materialized. Asked if that reflects on the executive director, Pico says, "He's been working on it. ... we haven't got the money out of the state for doing it, but we've got it on a list of things to do."
Speaking of lists, a state funding allotment issued in July assigns PPACG a mere 3.5 percent of $9.1 billion in potential funding in coming years, a share on par with that of the state's sparsely populated southeast sector. DRCOG, meanwhile, was listed at 34.5 percent, and the North Front Range at 22 percent.
Although funding for the list didn't materialize, future funding could be based on a similar CDOT process.
Asked about that, PPACG Community Advisory Committee member Kevin Walker says via email, "It is important that the Pikes Peak Region advocate for its needs at all levels of government, and to be seriously undervalued on a list of this import did not accomplish that objective."
MacDonald and PPACG executive board members El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, Green Mountain Falls Town Trustee Tyler Stevens and Teller County Commissioner Norm Steen didn't respond to requests for comment.