Aspen City Council asked for and received the resignation of longtime City Manager Steve Barwick on Monday.
Council met in executive session for a half hour on Monday. The session was called to jump-start Barwick’s annual performance review, following a series of high-profile controversies connected to the city administration that resulted last month in the resignation of assistant city manager Barry Crook. These involved a “mobility lab” experiment planned for next summer and a dispute with the housing authority over its role in a city-subsidized housing project.
When the executive session ended, Mayor Steve Skadron announced that a majority of council — he did not specify if the decision was unanimous or not — requested Barwick step down and that Barwick agreed. Barwick apparently knew what was coming because a press release and 500-word commentary written by him regarding his resignation were both issued minutes after the executive session concluded.
Barwick joined the city in late 1993 as assistant city manager and finance director, and became the city manager in November 1999. His employment is subject to a contract negotiated with the council in 2010 that grants him one year’s pay in severance if Barwick is terminated for any reason other than being charged with a felony, committing an act of gross negligence or failing to live within city limits.
“In the event that [the city council] requests that Barwick resign his position with the city, and Barwick acquiesces to that request, such resignation shall be tantamount to a termination for purposes of this agreement,” the contract says.
Barwick’s annual salary is $195,228. The 63-year-old told the Aspen Daily News Monday night he will likely seek another city management position.
“I have recruiters contacting me at this point,” he said, attributing head-hunter interest to a local-government rumor mill.
Barwick said he will likely stay on for a month or two to assist with the transition.
“In the coming weeks city council will meet to discuss the interim and long-term plan for handling the vacancy,” says the press release issued shortly after council’s decision was announced. “Council will also meet in public session to finalize the terms of Steve Barwick’s departure and the process for recruitment of the next city manager.”
City hall also released a 500-word statement from Barwick that notes the oftentimes difficult and controversial nature of his role (see page 7).
“The challenges of the position have been obvious enough that friends frequently comment, ‘I don’t know how you do it’ and ‘What a thankless job you have!’ What these friends haven’t understood is that I love city management because it is a profession in which one can make a positive impact upon the lives of so many people,” Barwick wrote.
The column, printed in today’s newspaper, continues, “Aspen’s local government receives a huge volume of good suggestions from an intelligent and involved population and staff. Implementing the policy directives of a visionary council while leading a talented and determined staff has been a rewarding challenge.”
Skadron, in the press release that was issued immediately following Monday evening’s announcement, said that it’s been a “pleasure to work with Steve for 12 years.”
“I feel fortunate to have been a mayor during Steve Barwick’s tenure and his experience is something I’ve relied upon. I’ve always respected his calm, thoughtful and insightful guidance, particularly in emotionally and politically charged times. Steve Barwick’s work in many areas, including environmental stewardship, housing, transportation, and creating financial stability, have made Aspen a city that others turn to for exemplary leadership. His commitment over 25 years and the people he’s hired, the services and values they embody, are a large reason why so many people are drawn to this exceptional city as a community and a resort.”
The mayor said Friday that he remained supportive of the city manager.
Councilman Adam Frisch, who is running to replace the term-limited Skadron in the March 5 election, has lodged increasing complaints about the city administration in recent months. He requested an executive session last month to review the city manager’s performance.
Given the controversy over the mobility lab and a dispute with APCHA over its role in a city-subsidized housing project, he said Monday afternoon he is “getting very concerned about some rudderless-ness at city hall.”
“My ask was to have a discussion about the broken process with outreach,” Frisch said.
Frisch has been sounding the alarm on his concerns related to outreach on the city’s mobility initiatives at least since a proposal to remove parking spaces on Hopkins Avenue to make way for dedicated bike lanes. The city walked away from the plan following widespread objection from business owners.
Rough seas persisted for the mobility lab. Part of the initiative involved creating a subsidized ride-hailing and ride-sharing service. When the city announced in late November it was proposing an $800,000 contract with Lyft to run that service and others, local mobility providers were caught off-guard and showed up en masse to protest at a Dec. 10 city council meeting.
Frisch raised concerns about mobility lab outreach this summer.
“I was told there would be outreach and then I found out there wasn’t any outreach,” he said.
While the mobility lab fell under Crook’s assistant city manager purview, his boss — Barwick — should have ensured the process was better managed, Frisch said.
Frisch added that, in the wake of Crook’s blow-up directed at the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, the city manager “disappeared” and left council members to deliver an apology to the APCHA board.
Frisch wrote in a five-page memo outlining his frustrations with the mobility lab process, and communication in general, which was shared with city officials last month, that he is “sick and tired of my fears coming to fruition instead of community goals.”
Barwick said that Frisch’s complaints about communication had some validity but declined further comment. He described the situation surrounding Crook’s resignation as a “trigger” for his own parting ways.
He added that he had initially planned to work for the city until retirement but that he felt “fine” about the way he has been treated in the process.
His statement released Monday notes that the city “has had plenty of controversy over the past several decades, and it will continue.”
“It’s in our nature because Aspen is a unique community,” the statement says. “We are always striving to define and create the best possible qualities in a resort community.”
Barwick added that working in Aspen has been exciting because of the dynamic nature of the community and the professionalism of the city staff. He likened it to being in graduate school, because of the interest level generated by diverse issues the city tackles.
However, there is also a “kindergarten” nature to the position, he said, due to the personal nature of attacks that emanate from some corners. His statement spoke to some of those challenges.
“In this day and age, it takes a great deal of courage to run for elected office. City council members (and staff) constantly receive volleys of social media ‘slime missiles’ that can make it hard to focus on creating Aspen’s best future. I ask that you help candidates in the upcoming elections stay on the positive side as they navigate today’s political climate in service to this amazing, matchless community.”