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Brighton's Battle

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Where conflict over utilities money began, a Blade investigation.

By Liam Adams


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By Liam Adams and Sean Kennedy

Staff Writer & MetroWest Veteran

City Manager Philip Rodriguez informed City Council last fall that the utilities department had too much money. More revenue was generated than was spent.

City Council has since become divided, the mayor and city manager debate in open forum and some residents are fired up, ready to recall councilors. It’s a saga that’s gripped Brighton for months.

Residents whose utility fees generated the extra money felt “robbed” after learning the news. Even the word “gouged” has been thrown around.

A passionate debate two weeks ago about a proposed forensic audit, which council unanimously supported, elevated the public discourse once again. It resulted in five council members voting last week to suspend City Manager Philip Rodriguez.

 Some councilors say they’re acting against the city manager because of conflicts he’s had with city staff. Those who support Rodriguez believe more nefarious motivations are behind the curtain and that some are trying to “cover up” the utilities issue.

Over the past month and a half, the Blade has been investigating the utilities issue in an effort to provide context to the revenue surplus. Here is what we’ve found: 

Excess Cash in the Utilities Fund

 There’s no question that excess cash exists in different funds within the utilities department. It’s just a matter of how much.

According to the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) from 2018, at least $61.6 million in “unrestricted” funds - yet to be assigned to a project - in the water, wastewater and storm water accounts.

Rodriguez said the number is now around $63 million, based on recent calculations.

According to yearly CAFR’s, unrestricted funds in the utilities accounts steadily increased:

2012: $40.8 million

2013: $46.6 million

2014: $52.3 million

2015: $57 million

2016: $61.2 million

2017: $65.5 million 

When Rodriguez first discovered the excess in September 2018, the amount was around $68 million. His calculation was based on the year-to-date (YTD) operating income within the three utilities funds, minus funds that were assigned to projects.

The year-to-year increase in unrestricted funds was a result of rate increases, approved by City Council through a “re-budgeting amendment,” Rodriguez explained. In the spring, council approved a new budget to replace the budget it adopted the previous fall. Council OK’d the amended budget at the suggestion of the utilities department. The most problematic part about adopting the amended budget, Rodriguez said, is that the process wasn’t publicly accessible. 

“I had been told by these rate study people that we are in dire needs. We need to take a look at possible increases in water rates,” said Mayor Ken Kreutzer about why he approved rate increases.

Rodriguez doesn’t fault council for trusting suggestions from the utilities department because of everything else council must manage.

Not everyone agrees on the above figures, though. Councilman Clint Blackhurst said there are long-term projects for which some of the unrestricted funds will be needed. Still, Rodriguez thought $60 million-plus was too steep, so he contacted City Council during the time he was building the city’s 2019 budget. In an email dated Sept. 18, 2018, to council, Rodriguez said, “these concerns are not simplistic or without serious concern” and asked to meet with them.

Within a two-week time span, Rodriguez met with every councilor except Blackhurst and Councilwoman Lynn Baca to discuss the matter. Baca wasn’t fond of the one-on-one meeting structure, because not everyone was hearing the same thing at the same time, she said. Still, she eventually met with Rodriguez.

Blackhurst said he didn’t meet with Rodriguez because, “I wasn’t really in the mood to have him convince me what I already knew. It didn’t surprise me, I guess, knowing the complexity of the utility fund [and] that we had a large balance.” Blackhurst was once interim director of utilities and interim city manager, so he felt he grasped the situation well enough already. Rodriguez wasn’t necessarily providing new, revelatory information, he said.  

Commenting on his meetings with the other seven, Rodriguez said, “Even though those were difficult meetings, I was pretty encouraged that each member that I met with really seemed to understand the gravity of the situation.” But by Oct. 2, Rodriguez was surprised to find himself under threat of removal during a City Council executive session.

Tension amongst city government department heads

 At the same time Rodriguez was meeting with councilors to discuss utilities money, other councilor members were also meeting to discuss Rodriguez’s performance as city manager.  

After hearing what they considered sufficient evidence that Rodriguez wasn’t managing city staff well, the mayor and Blackhurst decided “he wasn’t the man for the job,” said Blackhurst.

Blackhurst said Rodriguez’s performance “has been the issue with me from the very beginning until now.” Rodriguez, however, questioned the timing of bringing forth personnel complaints, which was soon after he alerted council about the money.

Blackhurst cited an incident the previous August when Rodriguez allegedly became angry at a staff member who didn’t properly handle sensitive information related to a Vietnam Veterans Memorial. According to internal city emails obtained by a records request, Rodriguez requested that a relative of his - a Brighton resident who served during the Vietnam War era - be included in the engraved list of names on the memorial. Personal information about Rodriguez’s relative wasn’t properly redacted in an email from an administrative assistant in the parks and recreation department to an email outside city government.

Rodriguez told the Blade he was upset because the mistake represented a flaw in the city’s personal identification information system (PII). It just happened that the situation involved his relative, he said. Director of Information Technology David Guo confirmed in an email Aug. 8 that the accidental leak of personal information didn’t adhere to the city’s IT policy.

Rodriguez kept tabs on the discipline administered to the administrative assistant who made the mistake. She was put on a three-day unpaid suspension, right before a scheduled vacation, Rodriguez said. On Aug. 20, however, Rodriguez emailed Gary Wardle, director of parks and recreation, to express his dissatisfaction with the three-day unpaid suspension, writing:

“Marv (acting City Manager Marv Falconburg) shared with me the latest. It’s not good enough. He knows what I’m expecting. This is starting to drag out now, which is not acceptable to me.” Wardle declined to comment on the implications of the message, noting that it was a personnel issue.

Rodriguez said it was dissatisfaction over the leave period and not a desire to terminate the staff member. Rodriguez also added that the incident with the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial has nothing to do with the events of late September 2018, although Blackhurst said otherwise.

An anonymous source provided the Blade with emails about another incident in September that involved Karl Gannon, a finance employee in the utilities department. Gannon, in an email to City Council dated Sept. 16 at 7:20 p.m., complained that the proposed 2019 budget was developed “without meaningful input from utilities personnel” and “a blatant disregard for the expertise” of utilities staff, at the hands of Rodriguez. In an email sent to councilors the same day at 8:06 p.m., Curt Bauers, director of the utilities department, who had known conflict with Rodriguez, said the city manager intended to fire Gannon within an hour of Gannon’s direct communication with the council. Within the week following his email, Gannon resigned. 

City authorities declined to say whether Gannon was fired or resigned, but multiple sources confirmed that Gannon was no longer working in Brighton city government by Sept. 17. 

Blackhurst said the city manager had asked directors of departments and council to communicate through Rodriguez. Bauers, who was terminated on Sept. 17, also said in a different email that Rodriguez was trying to sabotage the utilities department.

Some councilors, including Blackhurst, felt the termination of Bauers and Gannon was another example of Rodriguez’s aggression because it was over their emails to council. Rodriguez denies those claims, though, and says the conflict was more generally about the utilities funds.

Prior to terminating Bauers, Rodriguez said, “I was approached by the utilities director to consider a rate increase in 2019.”

It was around that time that Rodriguez had learned about the excess cash. He emailed Bauers, Gannon and other budget team members on Sept. 14, saying he discovered “gouging” of ratepayers. Rodriguez cited his prior knowledge of excess cash as evidence that terminating the utilities director wasn’t over Bauers’ emails to council. 

After hearing about these incidents, Blackhurst met with Councilors Mary Ellen Pollack, Kirby Wallin and Matt Johnston to fill them in, and according to Wallin and Pollack, requested their vote to terminate Rodriguez over personnel matters. There were eight specific examples Blackhurst said he provided to the councilors about Rodriguez’s behavior. Johnston said he had a similar conversation with the mayor. In those meetings, Pollack and Wallin weren’t fully convinced. While Blackhurst said he, “didn’t hold anything back,” Pollack and Wallin wanted to hear directly from the city staff.

Blackhurst said he was “guarded” with how much information he shared because he didn’t want to out staff members for talking with him about Rodriguez. Blackhurst acknowledged that any further divide between council over Rodriguez’s alleged personnel issues could have been because of his own insight as a former member of the staff. 

Rodriguez also points out that in his annual evaluation, completed on Aug. 21, 2018, the councilors’ average rating in each category exceeded 4, which means councilors deemed his performance as being above average overall. At the same time, written comments listed the following as areas needing improvement: Rodriguez’s interactions with city employees; personal/professional relationships; leadership style; helping all employees feel comfortable in the workplace; and avoiding a “ready, shoot, aim approach” to communication.

First vote to fire Rodriguez

After hearing from councilors prior to the Oct. 2 meeting that there would be a vote to terminate him, Rodriguez met with the mayor and mayor pro tem at Buffalo Run Golf Course. There, Rodriguez was told there was a majority vote to terminate him and, according to Rodriguez, they suggested he resign, which Rodriguez tentatively agreed to do. Then, City Attorney Jack Bajorek sent him a pre-written resignation letter at 3:55 p.m. that contained an agreement to pay Rodriguez nine months’ severance. Rodriguez said he wanted to abide by city manager ethics code, which said he should respect the wishes of city officials, leading to him consider resigning.

“There was no logical conclusion where I would want to resign from a great position that I had moved my family here for, that I was doing well in,” he said.

Three hours after Bajorek’s email, the City Council meeting began. At 7:36 p.m., council, Rodriguez and Bajorek entered an executive session after a 5-4 vote.

Different individuals said different things about that meeting. Blackhurst, Kreutzer and councilors Baca and Mark Humbert said it was completely about personnel issues involving the city manager and had little to do with the utilities issue. Rodriguez said it was more about the utilities issue and that personnel matters were forced into the conversation. Wallin said, though, they did discuss city staff who didn’t like the city manager and that council wanted to establish goals about personnel relationships. But many felt there wasn’t enough information and that they couldn’t decide on whether to accept Rodriguez’s resignation.

 Commenting on his experience, Humbert said, “I wanted to get to the bottom of the personnel issues that were being discussed. I wanted more time to hear it and hear from people.”

While the privacy of executive sessions are generally protected by law, the Blade found this executive session to be public because of an improper vote. According to Colorado Open Meetings Law provision CRS 24-6-402(4), two-thirds of the governing body must approve an executive session.

At the end, Wallin felt frustrated “because they [other councilors] did have discussions with employees based on the one-sided story. They made up their mind, they did not share the stories with others.”

The Blade has yet to obtain a recording of the meeting.

Whether Philip Rodriguez continues as city manager or not, there were multiple issues occurring at once last fall, when this all began. Some say the timing is funny; others think it’s not a joke whatsoever, especially with recalls in the works.

For one camp, stories of personnel conflict involving Rodriguez have always been the main issue. However, excess cash in the utilities fund has the priority for others.

Yet, in interviewing almost every Brighton City Council member, councilors on both sides of the aisle told the Blade they want to move on and do the work they were elected to do, rather than squabble about one thing.

Whether council can accomplish that goal is another matter altogether, given an upcoming November election. Nonetheless, councilors and residents alike hope for, at some point, reconciliation.

Ultimately, time will tell. A City Council meeting agenda about Rodriguez’s departure from Brighton was scheduled for July 16 and depending on what happens, people will respond as they please.