Aspen City Council’s decision on Monday night to ask for City Manager Steve Barwick’s resignation was not without at least one strong dissent.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins told the Aspen Daily News on Tuesday morning that she was in the minority on the decision, reached in executive session, and that she argued that the council was acting rashly in seeking the end of Barwick’s 19-year tenure in the manner that it did.
“I thought it was done too quickly, without enough discussion, enough considering of alternatives,” Mullins said.
“I have had some issues with Steve but I have also seen the value he has brought to city councils,” she added, noting suggestions that Barwick made to help the council through a decision on the Lift One corridor, which was referred to voters on Monday. “He doesn’t speak up that often but when he does he tends to have a pretty good answer.”
As Barwick prepares to depart — he said on Tuesday his last day would likely be in March — city hall is facing a staffing challenge in the manager’s office. Barry Crook, one of two assistant city managers, is already gone, in the fallout last month from a dispute with the Aspen-Pitkin Housing Authority over its involvement with a city subsidized housing project.
That leaves the other assistant city manager Sara Ott. She will discuss assuming the interim city manager role with council in an executive session next week.
Barwick said on Tuesday that the city will have to figure out a way to “reduce the workload” for the city manager’s office in the interim. How that functions will be determined in the coming weeks. When asked about the process for filling the assistant city manager position left open with Crook’s departure, Barwick said that the city “has to talk about structure first,” referring to the structure of the city manager’s office.
Mullins, who is a candidate for mayor in the March 5 election, counted this among her reasons why she fears the council majority’s decision on Barwick “wasn’t thought out well enough.” It will be tough for a new mayor to start out short handed, she said, and progress on city goals could be slowed with the dearth of personnel.
Mullins is running against Councilman Adam Frisch, former councilman Torre and political newcomer Cale Mitchell. Frisch requested Monday’s executive session to discuss Barwick’s performance following a series of controversies related to city management. This includes pushback from taxi and limo companies and local bike shops to the city’s mobility lab initiative and a dispute between city administration and APCHA.
The latter issue came to a head when Crook delivered an expletive-laden tirade at the tail end of a public meeting, directed to the APCHA director, criticizing APCHA’s position on partnering with the city. The city had made a late ask that the housing authority sign on as a minority partner in the project. Crook resigned three days after the incident that happened just after a joint meeting between Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners adjourned.
Mullins said that following the trauma of Crook’s resignation, she was hoping to see things calm down a bit. However, she was in the minority, as Barwick lost the support of Frisch and Councilman Ward Hauenstein. He never had the support of Councilman Bert Myrin, who ran for office four years ago advocating for change at the top.
The way the Crook blow-up was handled was a deciding factor for Hauenstein, who decided he was ready to see Barwick go. He lamented that the manager’s office never delivered a public apology. Instead, three council members went to an APCHA board meeting to mop up.
He was also frustrated by the city’s outreach over the planned mobility lab, and that local transportation providers were feeling left out in the cold when city staff proposed an $800,000 contract with the corporate giant Lyft.
“I can tell you there have been a number of incidences where community outreach has fallen flat on its face,” Hauenstein said. “ … The connection between city hall and the public seems to be widening rather than narrowing.”
He added that with Crook out, it makes sense to also change up leadership at the top. It doesn’t make sense to have a city manager who may be on his way out hire a new deputy, he said.
Hauenstein also wanted to spare Barwick the indignity of being a live election issue.
Barwick has “served the community as city manager for a long time and done the best he could,” Hauenstein said. “I have no animosity. I have no desire to see him become a dart board” during a political campaign.
He added that he thought that deciding the fate of the city manager — which is one of two positions in city hall directly hired and fired by the council — should rest with this council and not the newly constituted board.
Hauenstein conceded that “we have some trying times ahead of us in the leadership of the manager’s office.”
Despite the election coming in less than two months, the new council will not be seated until June, because this is the first election cycle with the vote moved up from May to March.
Whether this council will make a decision on Barwick’s replacement remains to be seen, since a search is expected to take months, at least.
Barwick, who has been with the city for 25 years, serving as city manager for 19, negotiated an employment contract in 2010. The contract entitles him to a year’s severance pay — his annual salary is currently $195,228 — if he is fired or asked to resign. City officials said such contracts are common with city managers who serve at the pleasure of elected officials.
Barwick also lives in a home he owns, but the home is reserved for city employees. He is required to sell the home within six months of his last day.