Zooming in: Let’s discuss the Thornton Council fuss

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 11/4/21

The issue has come up about a council member “attending” city council meetings via Internet means such as Zoom in lieu of physical attendance at City Hall. Certainly, this remote meeting practice …

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Zooming in: Let’s discuss the Thornton Council fuss

Posted

The issue has come up about a council member “attending” city council meetings via Internet means such as Zoom in lieu of physical attendance at City Hall.

Certainly, this remote meeting practice was used exclusively during COVID when state health rules prohibited gatherings such as city council meetings with social distancing and other restrictions.

Now, that those rules have loosened up regarding COVID restrictions, Mayor Jan Kulmann and some council members are voicing their opinion that some restrictions should be imposed on council members who rely on Zoom “attendance” for formal council meetings and study sessions.

However, there seems to be more below the surface in focusing on Council member Jacque Phillips.

Council member working full-time in Alamosa

Council member Phillips has taken a new job which takes her to Alamosa. She was hired in June as Executive Director for the San Luis Valley’s Board of Cooperative Education Services, which involves 14 southern Colorado school districts. Apparently, there was a rumor that Ms. Phillips had moved out of town with her new job. She says no and points to her voter registration, full-time residence and law practice being located in Thornton. Her council term runs to November, 2023. I mention her term of office to point out that this issue is not going away after the November 2 election.

A relevant policy issue to debate and decide

Setting aside any relationship problems between the Mayor and Phillips, the issue of attendance relying on remote networking programs like Zoom is a valid policy issue given the less restrictive status of the COVID virus and the expectations of elected officials.

Furthermore, the point made by council member Adam Matkowsky regarding effective representation of your constituents requires physical presence, certainly makes sense.

On the other hand, the occasional use of a remote meeting connection seems fair, as pointed out by council member Julie Marvin. Unexpected situations pop up like illness, an issue with your child etc. are legit situations.

Some governmental governing bodies have eliminated the virtual broadcasts so it is a moot point in those cases, but some still broadcast along with in-person attendance.

I think there is merit in keeping the virtual broadcasts as an option for the public as it reaches out to the public audience and offers an easy way for them to “tune-in” to city council, school board or county commissioner meetings. Otherwise, many of those same viewers probably would not attend in person.

Mayor Kulmann had mentioned some options to solve the issue. One of them was a limited number of times a council person could use a remote connection to “attend” the council meeting. Such an approach seems reasonable. I believe four times a year was suggested which seems workable.

If Council member Phillips is required to be at her Alamosa job full-time, it would seem that she cannot carry water on both shoulders effectively. If that is the case, it might be time to “fish or cut bait” regarding her council status.

What led to city manager Tripp’s $455,000 payout?

Mr. Tripp has taken his $455,000 of taxpayer dollars to the bank and flew out the door of City Hall. That part is now history, as distasteful as it is.

However, we need to go to the root of the problem of such excessive compensation of a public servant which did not seem to bother very many citizens at his hiring in February, 2015. Don Tripp, who had no prior city management experience nor held any public administration degree(s), was hired as city manager, leaving his Director of Parks, Recreation & Libraries post in Westminster. The then-city council — which approved his initial employment contract— included then-Mayor Herb Atchison and then-council member Anita Seitz.

The other five councillors who voted in favor making it unanimous are not currently on city council.

2020 employment contract was a true “golden parachute”

Subsequent employment contracts each year were approved by a majority of council with the most current contract being in the fall of 2020. It should be noted that council member DeMott did NOT vote in support of any of Tripp’s contract renewals.

Atchison, Seitz, Skulley and Voelz approved the 2020-2021 contract which included a $300,000-plus base salary, a $750 per month car allowance along with cashing in accrued leave when leaving the city’s employment. Councillors DeMott, Smith and Seymour voted NOT to approve this lucrative deal for Mr. Tripp.

Councilors must own that contract

So, now we have Seitz, Skulley and Voelz scurrying to distance themselves from this above-market level of compensation now that the $455,000 figure is out in the open.

A Channel 7 reporter told me that Seitz declined to comment on Tripp’s payout. A “Thank you” goes to Channel 7 and the Denver Post for enlightening the Westminster public as well as Denver metro citizenry. Also, thanks to Dino Valente for his CORA request which got the ball rolling.

However, what you sow you must reap. So, Mayor Seitz and Councilor members Skulley and Voelz must “own it” when it comes to taking responsibility for this ridiculous payout. Such a large payout should never have existed from the start.

Although this column will appear the day after the election, the public still needs to know who caused this failure in being good stewards of the public’s money and trust.

Immediate attention is needed

Looking ahead, the mayor, city council and administrative leadership need to come to grips with numerous issues. Key among them are tightening the spending reins and cutting back on the bureaucracy of bloated staffing in some departments.

The City of Westminster has become way too bogged down in red tape and procedures. Just ask any developer, contractor or business owner, who can cite examples of this “red tape creep.” It behooves the council and staff to make this a priority.

Regarding spending, Council should start with the city manager’s compensation package. This needs to be culled back to a competitive market level to fit the situation. Previous Mayor Herb Atchison and the three council members got way too generous and friendly with Mr. Tripp and his compensation.

Also, council and economic development staff needs to re-think and re-calculate what reasonable incentives are for new developments. As more apartment development come forward (oh yes, they will unless the new council stops them), staff and council need to first decide what residential development Westminster wants and needs.

Let’s not aim to be the capital of affordable housing apartments. Other cities and counties need to step up and do their part. Let’s think moderate and not excessive numbers when it comes to affordable apartments.

With the quick success of townhomes and condos at the “New Downtown”, that should tell the new council that these housing options should be expanded along with the “missing middle” single family homes — assuming the required water is in place.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media. You can contact him at bcjayhawk68@gmail.com.

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