The news of city Chief of Staff Laura Neumann’s resignation earlier this week stunned community leaders and elected officials alike. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding her March 1 departure, it’s not good news for the city no matter how it’s spun.
Tellingly, City Councilors Jan Martin and Jill Gaebler used the same phrase in separate interviews describing Neumann’s impact on the city.
“She was the glue that held people together.”
Recruited by Mayor Steve Bach to bring private-sector perspective to the insular world of city administration, Neumann lived up to her billing — and then some.
She was (and is) a forceful, intelligent and decisive woman who looked at the Colorado Springs city government with fresh eyes while sympathizing with the dilemmas of workplace upheaval. Like all talented managers, she could solve problems before they surfaced and also could quickly resolve disputes. She tore down silos and dealt superbly with flood and fire, and even more admirably, never sought the spotlight.
As the city’s COO, she saw her principal task as assuring the smooth functioning of all the city’s disparate enterprises, functions and responsibilities.
COOs are like offensive linemen in football — they rarely get the credit when things go well, but they’re always blamed when things go badly. During Neumann’s watch, she instituted far-reaching changes in established city practices without affecting public perception of city service delivery.
Her competence was in stark contrast to the chaos and disarray of city management as the recession deepened in 2009 and 2010.
The mayor will miss her. Where at times Bach could be mercurial and rough-edged, Neumann was always predictable and polished. The mayor never publicly second-guessed her decisions, and she was an unfailingly loyal employee. Without either realizing it, they played good cop/bad cop.
She tore down silos and dealt superbly with flood and fire, and never sought the spotlight.
Losing Neumann will weaken Bach, and his opponents know it, though he can salvage some continuity by bringing back Steve Cox one more time as her replacement.
“I would hope that everyone will be sorry that Laura has left, because it’s such a blow to the city,” said one senior city official, “but that may not be the case. The mayor’s job just got a lot tougher.”
This year will bring extraordinary challenges.
Relations between the two branches of city government have never been worse. Council’s passage of an ordinance limiting the administration’s power to transfer funds between city departments infuriated Bach, who repaid the favor by announcing that he would ignore Council’s “illegal” ordinance.
Council President Keith King reminded Bach that no one has the right to choose which laws to obey — not even the mayor. Other Councilors spoke darkly of taking Mayor Bach to court, and clipping his wings for good.
Since then, an uneasy, distrustful truce has prevailed. When city economic vitality staffer Bob Cope briefed Council on the City for Champions proposal Monday, from their body language, he might as well have been Jordan Belfort, there to sell them a package of worthless securities.
Joining the Board of County Commissioners and other regional governments, the City Council supports the creation of a regional flood control entity. Bach wants a city-centric solution that would include funds for other infrastructure needs.
Our warring branches of government do us no favors. City and regional taxpayers aren’t too fond of new taxes, and a measure opposed by either Bach or Council would have little chance at the ballot box.
Next up: the November elections, the 2015 budget wars, and then the April 2015 city elections. Challenges, opportunities, pitfalls and perils — it’s the kind of combative atmosphere that Mayor Bach has relished in the past.
With Neumann continuing to protect his blind side, Bach might have been a happy warrior, the Peyton Manning of Colorado Springs politics. Four more years? Why not — there’s still much to accomplish.
Without Neumann, he might delight his foes and decide otherwise. Come mid-2015, we could have a new mayor, as many as three new councilors, and the whole drama would start anew. That would be fun for the jackals of the media, but perhaps not in the city’s best interests.
In the best of possible worlds, Mayor Bach and City Council would sit down and come to Jesus. They’d confess their sins, compromise their differences, agree on a path forward and prepare to work together for the remainder of the decade.
After a new mayor and 12 new councilors since May 2011, can’t we all just get along? Maybe so — but I’d feel a lot more optimistic if Laura Neumann were still in her office.
“Shane! Shane! Come back, Shane!”