Aurora council members’ tensions made public in letters over treatment of top city staff

"If you know that the culture and atmosphere is a certain way at a company, you don’t want to put yourself through that situation," Ward V Councilman Bob Roth said.

AURORA | Lingering divisiveness on Aurora City Council made a rare spillover into public view Wednesday, July 13, after a majority of council members accused their colleagues of hurting city staff morale with their actions.

The letter – submitted to the Aurora Sentinel by Ward V Councilman Bob Roth – is prefaced by expressing “strong support of the outstanding management team running the City of Aurora,” including City Manager George “Skip” Noe, three deputy city managers and two assistant city managers.

“We are very concerned regarding staff morale because of some of our colleagues’ behaviors toward them,” the letter to the Sentinel reads. “They deserve to be treated as the professional managers that they are.”

20160711-Aurora City Council Public Hearing for Rezoning Ordinance-Aurora, Colorado

Residents gather for public hearing ordinance on rezoning of a mobile home district to a transit oriented development on Monday July 11, 2016 at Aurora City Council Chambers. Aurora City Council members decided to table the measure by a 8-3 vote. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne/Aurora Sentinel

Roth said he believes some of his fellow council members have been targeting lower-level city staff as a way to suggest Noe is not doing a satisfactory job as city manager.

“In my opinion, a lot of things that have happened that may not be obvious are an opportunity to indirectly point at Skip and say he’s not doing his job,” Roth said.

on Thursday Sept. 03, 2015 at Aurora Sentinel. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Ward V Aurora City Councilman Bob Roth (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

In addition to Roth, Mayor Steve Hogan and Council Members Bob LeGare, Brad Pierce, Angela Lawson and Francoise Bergan also signed their support.

Roth specifically pointed to Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson’s questions about an Ethiopian resident having difficulty working in the city to create a community radio station.

At a recent council meeting, Richardson criticized the Aurora Sister Cities program for not being able to help with setting up an antenna on an Aurora Public Schools property, despite being able to afford for a council trip to Aurora’s Ethiopian sister city, Adama, last year. Roth countered that numerous city staff did what they could.

“That was an opportunity to say the city is letting this guy down, and by saying that, executive management is letting this guy down,” Roth said. “That’s the subtle difference I’ve seen in committee meetings, study sessions and full sessions lately, where a member of staff is put through the ringer on an issue, and in my opinion, it’s a thinly veiled poke at executive staff because that’s where the buck stops.”

Roth suggested that some top-level staff might leave the city based on what he claims is a toxic relationship between staff and council.

“If you know that the culture and atmosphere is a certain way at a company, you don’t want to put yourself through that situation,” Roth said.

Richardson quickly responded to the letter as it circulated among council members prior to its publishing, stating that the letter “is aimed directly at me and some others on council who will not be intimidated or pressured to gently and quietly go with the flow of free lunches and dinners and the faux respect and ego-building paid to the municipal decision makers while they are in office.”

Ward IV City Councilman Charlie Richardson (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)
Ward IV City Councilman Charlie Richardson (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

Richardson, who has recently raised numerous questions regarding police under-staffing, overtime costs for firefighters and other city issues, said he has never meant to needle staff – only to get answers for the public.

“I have never meant to hurt the feelings of any city employee or disrespect, but sometimes I feel compelled to ask tough questions,” Richardson said. “The rest of us weren’t even asked our opinion of the letter. It just reignites this terrible debate regarding the city manager, and it’s a huge distraction from doing the people’s work.”

Though Noe’s name wasn’t used in the letters by Roth and Richardson, most of the council members who did not sign onto Roth’s letter have previously sought to force Noe out of his position. Tensions over Noe’s status with the city resulted in multiple discussions with a previous slate of council members over whether to hold a no-confidence vote against him in 2015. A January workshop session was largely consumed with discussion of council members’ concerns with whether they could achieve policy goals in the coming year while divided over retaining Noe as city manager.

At least one of those council members who sought Noe’s ouster – At-Large Councilwoman Barbara Cleland – claimed she did not have a chance to see the letter before it was sent to the press.

Barb Cleland
At-Large Aurora City Councilwoman Barb Cleland (File photo)

“I wish they would’ve given an opportunity for all of council to have a discussion and all of council to be aware of it and not blindside some of us,” Cleland said. “I think we have an amazing staff. They do an absolutely amazing job for this city.”

While Cleland still believes Noe should be replaced, she didn’t plan on bringing up the issue publicly any time soon.

“The staff and the city, with the exception of the city manager, are outstanding,” she said, adding that Roth’s letter only creates more divisiveness among council members.

“They’ve created a ‘we’ and a ‘they’ since they didn’t bother to talk to us who didn’t sign on,” Cleland said.

Mayor Hogan, who signed the letter, agreed that city staff had been treated poorly by some city council members but would not give any specific examples or name the council members he thinks have been less than professional with staff.

“Roth’s letter is not bringing up a Skip Noe issue, it’s bringing up a respect and professionalism and ‘thank you’ to city employees who do the job all day, every day and have been, for the last year and a half, in what has been, admittedly, a difficult time,” Hogan said. “This isn’t about Skip Noe. I think each council member has to answer for themselves.”

Ward II Councilwoman Peterson, who saw a draft of the letter and declined to sign it, said it wasn’t the right way to handle the issue of showing support for top staff or addressing the council’s divisions.

“I like to at least rinse my laundry before I hang it to dry,” she said. “I think staff does a wonderful job. If you want to tell staff that, you send a letter directly to them or you give them a pay raise.”

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