Since six newcomers joined the Colorado Springs City Council five months ago, all nine members of the city’s legislative body have embraced a single goal.
They want their own lawyer.
“This is the most important issue that we’ll have to deal with,” said Council President Keith King at a post-election Council retreat last May.
City Attorney Chris Melcher swiftly quashed the idea. Citing the city charter, he pointed out that the city attorney represents the entire city, including Utilities, the mayor and his administration, all city departments and City Council.
Melcher hasn’t changed his position, nor has Council.
In an 8-0 vote Tuesday, Council approved a hastily drafted resolution authorizing itself to employ an outside attorney, and also directed Utilities to “retain outside counsel on behalf of City Council.”
If hired, the counsel would provide advice “on certain legal matters associated with the creation and implementation of a regional stormwater control program.”
Prior to passing the resolution, Council reduced Melcher’s pay by $4,000 to its original level of slightly more than $183,000. That action, said King, was in response to “bad customer service” provided to Council.
“We’d fire you if we could,” said King.
Melcher offered a vigorous defense. He contended that Council is misreading the intent and language of the City Charter. He questioned councilors’ citation of a section that, they believe, gives them the power to employ outside counsel.
“The outside counsel contemplated by the charter is to be employed by the city attorney,” he said. “What Council contemplates is actually prohibited by the City Charter.”
Melcher didn’t change any minds.
A furious Jill Gaebler blasted Melcher, accusing him of offering opinions that support Mayor Steve Bach’s position on any given issue.
“I can’t fathom how you can say that you represent us,” she said. “Not one attorney has come to a Stormwater Task Force meeting. You haven’t responded to emails. The fact is, you haven’t supported Council on this issue.”
We’d fire you if we could.”
– Keith King, Council president
“All these lawyers you’re talking about are on the mayor’s side,” Gaebler said. “We need a neutral and unbiased opinion.”
Council also heard from anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, who didn’t mince words.
“This resolution,” he began, brandishing a draft of the document handed out at the meeting, “shows that you have no idea what you’re doing.”
King quickly cut him off, telling him to focus on the resolution, not Council’s competence.
Bruce gleefully pointed out numerous errors in the draft, and offered an unflattering analysis of its content. Former Vice Mayor Larry Small, who now heads the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, murmured a suggestion.
“If Council needs their own attorney,” he said, “I know a convicted felon who would be happy to help.”
King also voiced his displeasure.
“We are equal to the administration — we’re entitled to get legal advice from you,” King said. “We haven’t been given service. We have no contact with people in your office — we’re excluded. When we make requests, we don’t get answers. We get a political response, not a legal response.”
Melcher offered conciliatory words, but the city’s consigliere made one thing very clear.
“You can pass any resolution, but it has no significance until you act upon it,” he said. “If you attempted to act on it, you would be in violation of the charter and the code.”
After the meeting, Melcher was philosophical.
“When you’re the man in the middle, you get blamed,” he said. “I try to give (Bach and Council) unbiased advice, and someone is bound to be displeased.”
By a 7-2 margin, Council also approved a joint city-county resolution in support of joint stormwater control. Council and county commissioners envision creating a Regional Stormwater Authority including almost all of El Paso County and extending into Pueblo County. It would have a structure similar to that of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, with a governing board consisting of elected officials from participating governments.
As outlined in a presentation to Council by John Cassiani, chairman of the Regional Stormwater Task Force, the authority would have the power to assess fees on property owners, based on impermeable surface. A portion of funds collected would be used on projects of “agreed regional benefit,” while the remainder would be spent in proportion to each entity’s revenue contribution based on a five-year rolling average.
Funds would be collected as part of El Paso and Pueblo County property tax bills.
Small suggested that instead of a new governmental entity, the existing Fountain Creek District would be an appropriate conduit for the funds.
“We gave that very careful consideration,” said Cassiani, “but we were advised that since the district can only realize revenue through special assessments, it would be open to legal challenge (from individual property owners).”
Cassiani’s remarks clarified Council’s eagerness to hire its own attorney.
Mayor Steve Bach has made it clear that he does not support a regional approach to stormwater management, and believes that the city should create an overall city stormwater/capital improvement funding package. Councilmembers apparently believe Melcher and his staff will tailor their advice to fit the mayor’s stated policy objectives.
“The Mayor believes that Council’s action is premature,” said Laura Neumann, Bach’s chief of staff. “He feels that Council should wait until Oct. 9, when CH2M Hill will present their independent analysis of stormwater needs.”
Bach has invited councilors, county commissioners and the Stormwater Task Force to attend the meeting, pitch proposals, and listen to his yet-to-be-unveiled plan.
“We need a regional solution,” said Commissioner Amy Lathen after Monday’s Council work session, “and a PPRTA structure seems appropriate.”