A COUNCIL DIVIDED: Plans to oust Aurora city manager dissolved over severance, worry about bad press

“I don’t see a solution here. Is the solution to agree with the four that want Skip fired? To bring peace to the city? I don’t feel that’s the answer,” Councilman Bob LeGare said. “I just don’t feel that’s the answer. They think it is. I frankly would like to see just some peace and civility for five or six months.”

AURORA | That Aurora City Manager Skip Noe’s job was in jeopardy in 2015 was no surprise after a minority of lawmakers sought to force him out and a majority fought just as hard to keep him in the job.

But two key reasons why a consensus was never reached on potentially ousting Noe were revealed at a recent council meeting in which council members on both sides of the controversy spoke openly and bluntly about their dissatisfaction with Noe as city manager, his value to the city, and how to move forward — with or without him.

Skip Noe on Monday April 13, 2015 at Aurora Municipal Center. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)
Aurora City Manager George “Skip” Noe remains a topic of heated debate among Aurora City Council members, a minority of whom want him replaced. (File photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

According to council members speaking on condition of anonymity, there have been at least three attempts to gather support for a deal for Noe to resign — efforts that have failed over disagreements over the amount of severance to offer and an attempt to keep disgruntled council members from disparaging Noe on his way out.

Council members supporting Noe have said that all of those failed attempts would have been subject to Noe agreeing to the deals, but they never made it that far.

Now, a new slate of council members are again being caught up in heated discussion over Noe’s future as city manager, as evidenced by the raucous conversation about Noe at a recent workshop held away from City Hall.

The Aurora Sentinel has obtained the audio of that Jan. 30 council workshop via open records request, revealing the clearest details to date on how the proposals to oust Noe fell apart. But for Aurora’s city government moving forward, the discussion raises doubts about how well the current council will function with lingering tensions and heightened distrust among each other.

‘I DON’T TRUST THE CITY MANAGER’

When the vast majority of Aurora City Council convened in the last weekend of January at a Broomfield hotel, the intent was to outline priorities for council to pursue in the coming year.

But talk of policy goals and city initiatives was quickly sidelined by an hourslong debate over whether the council could function as a cohesive elected body as the question of Noe’s future as city manager continued to tear at them.

“The great, big issue is that we’re not going to be able to come together as long as Skip is the city manager,” Mayor Steve Hogan said, recounting comments from Ward I Councilwoman Sally Mounier earlier in the day. “Because it’s not other things — it’s Skip as city manager and Skip’s leadership.

“It does seem to be focused on whether we can go ahead as a city council or can’t we,” Hogan said at the meeting.

The ensuing discussion of complaints about Noe and whether council would again consider a no-confidence vote in a bid to remove him from the position was perhaps the most frank and straightforward that council members have had in an open council meeting.

Newly elected Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson quickly brought the topic back to Noe’s performance as city manager after city staff excused themselves from the room to allow council members to talk about Noe — as the audio recorder kept going.

“I don’t trust the city manager … I never in my 40 years thought I’d ever see the day where this alliance with a city manager would be allowed to divide this, a city council, up like it has,” Richardson said. “And I think it never had to do with gender … it is just a trust issue, it’s what kind of city manager that you want in terms of the role of council on policy matters.”

But proponents of Noe said Richardson’s motives are suspect. Richardson was Aurora city attorney for decades before retiring  two years ago, and staff and some city council members say he and Noe disagreed on many issues before Richardson left the city.

Four city council members in 2015 had attributed their dissatisfaction with Noe on what they saw as him treating women differently than men. Noe has publicly challenged that characterization. Another city council member joined those critics, but said it was for other reasons. Since then, at least one council member who initially sought to oust Noe has joined a seven-member majority in support of retaining the city manager.

Richardson openly advocated for the city hire a new city manager so that all council members could be “on a level playing field” with whoever would replace Noe.

‘SWEETEN THE POT’

About one hour into pointed discussion of council’s issues with Noe, Hogan alluded to two separate efforts in 2015 to gain support for urging Noe out — efforts that failed when some council members balked at offering more severance than what’s dictated in Noe’s contract. 

Barb Cleland
City Councilwoman Barb Cleland. Sentinel file photo

“Because personally I cannot see giving a city manager a (year’s) salary, and that’s what the first (proposal) was … to me that is a golden parachute,” At-Large Councilwoman Barb Cleland said. “And the second time you came back, it was nine months’ (salary). I could have lived with nine months,” to which Ward I Councilwoman Sally Mounier quickly replied, “I can’t.”

Hogan then spelled out the lengths to which council hoped to avoid bad press last year over Noe’s possible departure.

“The request was that we just let it go quietly and we just get it over with and it’s done, and the response was, from several of those who didn’t like it — the response was, ‘Nope, there’s no way we’re going to keep quiet. If this deal goes, it’s going to be in the newspapers tomorrow.’ That’s what happened, and you know that’s what happened.”

on Friday Aug. 28, 2015 at Aurora Sentinel. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Hogan then referenced a conversation with Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson about pursuing a third effort to urge Noe out.

“Even when you and I talked, the question was still, ‘Can we keep this quiet?’ and the answer came back was ‘No, it’s not going to be kept quiet,’” Hogan said.

“That is a realistic answer,” Richardson replied.

“So that leaves the rest of us feeling that not only do you want the guy gone, you want him gone only on your terms,” Hogan said.

“How about his contract terms?” Ward III Councilwoman Marsha Berzins countered, to which Hogan suggested that the city should go beyond the stipulated compensation in Noe’s contract.

“But his contract is written assuming he’s going to continue, not assuming you want to get rid of him,” Hogan said.

“The word ‘greed’ came to my mind,” Berzins said. “I mean, I have his contract … his contract says if we ask him to leave, he gets six months. Why would we give him more?”

Hogan said that going beyond a contract in terms of severance “happens all the time, everywhere.

“Because you want him gone. Tomorrow. … all I know is, in most other situations, when a governing board wants to get rid of somebody tomorrow, they don’t insist on what’s in the contract, they sweeten the pot,” Hogan said.

NOE FOCUSED ON WORK, HOPES “WE CAN PUT THIS ISSUE BEHIND US”

Following the heated council workshop, Noe said his focus remains on fulfilling his role as city manager.

“As I have said from the beginning, I will serve as long as I have the support of the majority of council and I thank them for their confidence and trust,” he said in a statement. “Frankly, my energy has been focused on our work to meet council’s goals and priorities and the many transformative projects and initiatives shaping our future. I am committed to continuing to provide excellent service to all council members and to all our residents.  I would hope that we can put this issue behind us as we work together on the issues, challenges and opportunities that face our community.”

When asked whether he has sought out or retained a lawyer in regards to the situation and his employment with the city, Noe had no comment.

NEW FACES

on Friday Aug. 14, 2015 at Aurora Sentinel. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
At-Large Councilwoman Angela Lawson. (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

Council members on both sides of the debate over Noe’s future with the city agreed that council still manages to work together and achieve progress on a variety of issues.

But it remains unclear as to whether the minority of council members seeking his ouster would be able to gain further support from their colleagues if another proposal to urge Noe out emerged.

First-term At-Large Councilwoman Angela Lawson, who effectively replaced former Councilwoman Debi Hunter Holen on council, said she would “have to have some experiences with working with the city manager” and that “there’s no way in the world” she could come in as a new council member and vote him out this soon.

“I can’t look myself in the mirror and vote Skip out,” Lawson said.

A similar situation exists for freshman Ward VI Councilwoman Francoise Bergan, who was not  at the Jan. 30 workshop. Bergan’s ability to attend council functions has been limited in recent months after she began treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

WHERE COUNCIL STANDS NOW

The workshop discussion of Noe eventually concluded, with city staff who had excused themselves from the room returning for the remainder of the session, going through the originally planned agenda of council policy priorities. But the general tenor of council’s discussion did not indicate that anyone had been swayed from their previous opinion of Noe.

The only sign of progress — beyond the sheer relief for some council members to speak their minds and get things off their chests — was a laundry list of items drafted after council members listed off items they wanted updates on from Noe.

In particular, council members Brad Pierce and Bob LeGare pointed to a lack of information on the potential redevelopment of the Fan Fare site on Havana Street. That list of questions was subsequently presented to Noe for answering after the workshop. Noe replied to that list on Feb. 5.

Both LeGare and Pierce believe Noe is doing a satisfactory job as city manager.

“My position has not changed, I think Skip’s doing a good job running the city,” LeGare said. “I stand behind that.”

Pierce echoed that sentiment, saying he didn’t “see any reason to change my mind.

“I think we have to — of those who support him — just continue going down that path and trying to support him,” Pierce said. “He can be city manager for as long as he wants, as far as I’m concerned.”

But LeGare was less confident in how to proceed with the current divisions.

“I don’t see a solution here. Is the solution to agree with the four that want Skip fired? To bring peace to the city? I don’t feel that’s the answer,” LeGare said. “I just don’t feel that’s the answer. They think it is. I frankly would like to see just some peace and civility for five or six months.”

Ward V Councilman Bob Roth said he doesn’t feel the discussion over Noe has changed much since it reached its peak last year.

“I strongly believe that good leadership is best when there is a little bit of friction … but what has to happen, in my mind, when there is a clear majority that wants to move in a certain direction, at some point the non-prevailing side has to move on as well, recognizing the stance the majority has taken,” Roth said. “And in my view, it’s very unfortunate that in this case we continue to rehash the same conversation over and over and, really, the issues don’t change.”

Berzins said she remains adamant in her opinion of Noe because she says there has been no movement from the city manager in addressing those he offended in one way or another.

“I feel like the ball is in his court,” Berzins said.

But for her criticisms of Noe and the “lack of trust” with him, Berzins did have positive words for Noe this week.

“Skip is a very smart man, he’s an out-of-the-box thinker. … We were able to do a lot of really neat things on his watch,” she said. “But there’s more to being a city manager than just doing things.

“I feel like a city manager should work for all of council, not just half of council,” she added. “That’s the problem.”

Cleland shared Berzins’ concerns  about trusting the city manager and also shared LeGare’s concern for the loss of civility among city council members because of the stance each has taken.

“If we had the opportunity, the 11 of us to pick a new city manager, we’d have the opportunity to come together as a group and get back to that civility,” Cleland said. “I don’t see that happening with Skip there.” 

ADVICE FROM FORMER COUNCIL MEMBERS VARIES

While current council members weigh the next steps on the debate over Noe’s continued employment, former Ward IV Councilwoman Molly Markert said that they should consider how much pain it has caused them thus far.

on Friday Oct. 16, 2015 at Aurora Municipal Center. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Former Ward IV Councilwoman Molly Markert (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

“The city is severely fractured … feelings are injured, friendships are shattered, some members are generally clueless or grasping for simple reasons for complex behaviors,” Markert said. “There is not an easy solution.”

And Markert’s suggestion for Noe?

“The gracious thing for the city manager to do is retire and take his golden parachute and fly away; but for whatever reasons, including believing it is not necessary, he chooses not to be gracious.”

Markert also said that Mayor Hogan should be taking charge in pushing toward that end.

“The correct thing for the leader — in this case, the mayor — to do is to lead the flock to feel the need to do something, and lead the negotiation of a consensus that would allow forward movement.”

But Hunter Holen said she feels just the opposite is true — that it’s time for council to focus on the rest of council’s business.

“It’s time to move on,” Hunter Holen said.

on Monday Nov. 09, 2015 at Aurora Fire Station #14. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Former Ward VI Councilman Bob Broom. (Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

The same advice for the current council was put forward by former Ward VI Councilman Bob Broom.

“Each council person should make an assessment and move forward,” Broom said in an email. “If something is decided by a 6-5 vote, it is decided and you move forward. It does not do any good if you are on the losing side to keep bringing something back up.”

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