In nearly 38 years as lawyer, retiring Aspen City Attorney John Worcester has never billed a client.
“I couldn’t ever see myself chasing a client for a fee,” Worcester said in an interview marking his 21 years with the city, 19 of them as city attorney.
His career began as a public defender in the Toledo, Ohio area, and he then spent 15 years working for immigrant- and minority-rights groups. With those organizations, Worcester, who turns 65 Monday, said he “sued every city or county government in northwestern Ohio.” For example, there was the urban fire department with just two black people on a payroll of 500, or the hospital that refused to provide indigent care to those in urgent need.
The tables eventually turned for Worcester, as he has been on the receiving end of litigation for two decades, although when someone sues the city of Aspen, they tend to be more concerned about property rights than civil rights.
And perhaps it’s that journey from a civil rights lawyer suing governments to a municipal attorney trying to help a city like Aspen pursue its progressive goals that has made Worcester so effective at his job. He has never technically lost a case in Aspen, he said.
When Colorado voters in 1992 passed an amendment to the state Constitution banning any law that would provide special protections for gays and lesbians, the city of Aspen signed on as a plaintiff to challenge the mandate as unconstitutional. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices eventually ruled 6-3 to strike the down the law. Worcester was in the courtroom representing the city while the case was being argued before the justices in 1995, which he identifies as one of the highlights of his legal career.
But in an “only-in-Aspen,” twist, the next day, Worcester appeared before the Colorado Supreme Court to argue the city’s case against a homeowner who installed a hot tub without proper permits, and sued when the city took enforcement action.
“What never ceases to amaze me [about Aspen] is that people live basically in paradise, but they will complain about the smallest things,” he said, adding that his ability to keep things in perspective in that regard has helped him over the years.
Worcester was born in La Paz, Bolivia, where his father worked as a mining engineer. When he was 2, the family moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. When Worcester was 15, his father died of cancer, and the family moved to the Philadelphia area.
A high school highlight was playing soccer with classmate Yonatan Netanyahu, brother to the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went on to become an elite Israeli soldier and was killed in a hostage-rescue mission in Uganda in 1976.
“He was a hell of a nice guy,” Worcester said of Netanyahu.
Worcester enrolled at the University of Toledo and received bachelor’s degrees in economics and chemical engineering. He had never considered the law until a professor encouraged him to apply for a law school scholarship sponsored by Dow Chemical. Although Worcester didn’t get the scholarship, he decided to go to the University of Toledo College of Law anyway, where he graduated in 1974, thinking he would become a patent attorney for a chemical company.
That all changed when he spent a summer working for a migrant farm-worker program, and decided he wanted a career in the public sector. After two years as a public defender, he spent three years as director of the La Raza Unida de Ohio Legal Aid Program, and then from 1977 to 1990 was the litigation director with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, where he managed a staff of 25 lawyers.
A friend asked Worcester to join him in a law practice in Greeley, Colo.
“Get a job in the mountains and we’ll talk,” was Worcester’s response. That friend — Jed Caswell — ended up being hired as city attorney in Aspen, and encouraged Worcester to apply for the assistant city attorney position. Worcester was hired, but first he saw a series of things that led him to conclude Aspen would be a good place to move with his wife, Pat, and daughter Jennifer, who was a high school freshman at the time.
While being interviewed for the job by then-Mayor Bill Stirling, Worcester noticed that Stirling kept passing carrots under his desk, but he couldn’t figure out why. When Worcester realized the mayor was feeding the carrots to his dog, he started to get a feel for the whimsical nature of Aspen, because, apparently, feeding your dog vegetarian treats was not common practice in Ohio. Seeing headlines about the local women’s hockey club the Mother Puckers, and witnessing a class at Aspen High School where the teacher was lecturing while students were laying on the floor sealed the deal.
“I thought, ‘What a crazy town,’” he said. “All of that impressed me.”
Since then, there have been cases memorable and not so memorable. There was the case in which two El Jebel residents sued the city, claiming that since they did most of their grocery shopping in Aspen, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution entitled them to the city’s $50 food sales tax refund, which is only offered to Aspen residents. Then there was the saga of Club 81611, a short-lived strip joint that suddenly appeared in Aspen in 1996. The city at the time had no ordinances on the books regulating such establishments, and the City Council quickly drafted a law mandating that dancers and customers be at least 3 feet apart, and that tips be deposited in a jar and not a G-string. The club’s owner sued in federal court.
After a hearing in Denver, Worcester recalls that the club’s owner asked him if he needed a ride back to Aspen. Seeing an opening for his dry humor, Worcester declined, informing the owner he planned to go to the notorious Denver strip club Shotgun Willie’s.
Perhaps most fulfilling to Worcester are some of the land acquisitions the city has made over his tenure. Worcester helped oversee the public purchase of the railroad easement that is now the Rio Grande Trail, which was so complex and involved multiple parties that the closing document-signing session lasted four hours, he said. Other lands acquired during Worcester’s tenure that might have been developed but are now in public hands forever include Burlingame Ranch, the Red Brick and Yellow Brick school buildings and open space on Smuggler Mountain and at Cozy Point. He also helped craft a deal with private developers that has kept the Isis operating as a movie theater.
As for the city’s controversial $18.25 million purchase in late 2007 of the BMC West lumberyard near the airport for affordable housing purposes, Worcester concedes that the deal would not likely have been made by a private business. But the city is not intended to function like a private business, Worcester said. He has relished working for an organization that is supposed to think for the long term, preparing to provide services to the public for the next 100 years and more, he said.
Worcester began thinking about his own mortality and the next phase of life when he fell seriously ill four years ago and required hospitalization. It was then that he deiced he would retire at 65, and move with Pat to Parker, Colo. to be near his daughter and son-in-law and their three children.
Retirement, like marriage or having grandchildren, is not something you can fathom until it is upon you, he said.
“I never thought I would look forward to the day I would retire,” Worcester said. “But when the time comes, you are ready for it.”
During his last City Council meeting last Monday, Worcester was the subject of an official proclamation, and Feb. 13 was declared to be “John Worcester Day” in the city of Aspen. Mayor Mick Ireland heaped praise on the attorney in the meeting.
In the practice of law, one see things that don’t always reinforce one’s faith in humanity, Ireland said.
“But every once in a while you meet an attorney like [the late judge and councilman] J.E. DeVilbiss or, in this case, John Worcester, who convinces you that it’s all worth it and a great deal of good can be done through the practice of law,” Ireland said.
Ireland praised Worcester’s “rational, Star-Treckian ability to separate the legal arguments from the political arguments.”
The official proclamation echoed that sentiment.
“ … Whereas John can quickly slash through bureaucratic blather to get to the essence of an issue, …” the official language reads.
Herb Klein, who has practiced law in Aspen since 1974 and been on the other side of many lawsuits with Worcester and the city, said he never knew Worcester to engage in posturing or blowing smoke. Even in the depths of legal arguments over the rights of government versus private property owners, Worcester never got personal and was a pleasure to deal with, Klein said.
“He served City Council’s interests very well without politicizing issues,” Klein said. “… He totally understood the issues immediately and was a very quick study. He was honest about the way he would look at issues.”
Having dealt with many municipal and government attorneys in Colorado, Klein said Worcester is “if not the best, then certainly one of the best.”
Worcester’s down-the-middle rationality was a reoccurring theme among co-workers and fellow lawyers. For his part, Worcester said being able to see both sides of the coin has been key to his practice over the years.
“To be a good lawyer, you have to see where the other side is coming from, so you can anticipate their arguments,” Worcester said.
Worcester’s perfect record has been challenged these last few years. Two cases involving City Council denials of downtown redevelopments were settled with terms that allowed some version of the projects to go forward. In September, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled against the city in Marks v. Koch, where a local activist is seeking the release of ballot records from the 2009 municipal election. The city and Worcester argue that the records should remain private, and that widespread access to voted ballots would harm the public interest. The city has appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has not yet indicated whether it will hear the case.
Jim True, who has served as special counsel to the city since 2007, and was hired with the idea that he would eventually step into the city attorney role, will replace Worcester as city attorney. Worcester said knowing he had True ready to step into his shoes has helped him retire with confidence.
At his retirement party Friday evening, the Grape Bar at the Hyatt Grand Aspen was filled with government workers, former mayors and local attorneys, some of whom have sued the city and gone head to head with Worcester. He was presented with a canary in a cage, to symbolize his work on creating the Canary Initiative, a citywide and cutting-edge program aimed at reducing the government’s carbon footprint. Asked what he’ll do with the bird, he said he plans to give it his granddaughter.
When asked by a well-wisher what he plans to do in retirement, Worcester relied again on his dry humor.
“I want to wake up and not care what day it is,” he said. “Unless it’s garbage day, I don’t give a shit.”