BY PETER JONES
As it turns out, a Littleton city manager does not have to live in Littleton—and if all goes as expected, the next one may be among the few who has not resided there in 127 years. The city was to officially hire interim City Manager Mark Relph this week, but only after a divided City Council took a closer look at Littleton’s governing document.
“We all went through and read the charter and the ordinances and couldn’t find anything. Apparently, there never has been a requirement,” said Councilmember Doug Clark, who after learning the news made a controversial motion to end a national search and instead hire an in-house staffer who had never formally applied for the position.
The contract for Relph, a Golden resident and Littleton’s former public works director turned interim city manager, was expected to be ratified May 16. Relph was approved by the council May 2 by a vote of 4-3 in face of broad disagreement about the process for hiring a manager and what qualities are most appropriate for the position.
While Clark says he believes it is best for a manager to be fully invested in the city he runs, regardless of any official residency requirements, the councilmember thinks there are more important issues at stake this time.
“I’m willing to make an exception in this specific case because of the circumstances the city is in and because I believe Mark is the right person for the City of Littleton,” Clark said.
The divided vote to tap Relph comes after a period of tumult in Littleton. His controversial predecessor, Michael Penny, was abruptly fired by an identically split council last summer amid charges Penny was too unilateral and had failed to communicate truthfully with the council.
Charges and countercharges were publically leveled by some councilmembers at Penny and at each other in the wake of the acrimonious departure, even as the city saw similar rancor in the high-turnover city attorney’s office.
Clark thinks Relph is the perfect successor to Penny after 12 months of acrimony.
“Mark is pretty straightforward. He gets along with the council. He communicates well. Personality wise, he’s probably the opposite of Michael Penny,” Clark said.
While Councilmember Debbie Brinkman agrees that Relph’s personal traits are a positive, she strongly objects to the majority’s decision to abort an ongoing search process and hire an employee who was never even interviewed for the permanent job.
“I love people like [Relph] and I think anybody in leadership who can do that is great, but there’s about 90 percent more I need from someone as a city manager. That’s what they hated about Michael,” said Brinkman, who opposed Penny’s firing.
The council originally contracted with Texas-based Waters & Company to conduct a $50,000 national search for a new manager. In February, after three finalists recruited by Waters proved unpopular with council, about half of its members began taking an interest in Relph, who was appointed as an interim replacement, but had expressed no interest in relocating for a permanent slot.
When happenstance research confirmed residency was not required by the charter—despite widespread assumption to the contrary—a majority opted for Relph, instead of continuing the search process with Waters at no additional charge, per the firm’s contract.
Brinkman found the majority’s disruption of the procedure offensive.
“These are the guys who scream every time there’s a process violation,” Brinkman said of the political contingent called the Sunshine Boys. “We have a process and you want to leapfrog over it to get your guy in. We’ve got candidates we’d like to interview.”
As it happened, the split vote that hired Relph was identical to that of last year’s decision to fire Penny—a fact that no one seems to think is pure coincidence.
Clark believes it may come down to a battle over “flashy dealmakers” and “managers,” and which type is the best fit, with his side preferring the latter.
Brinkman concedes that the majority wants a “stabilizer” at the helm.
Even so, she is aghast that the council overlooked its longstanding, if now unofficial, preference that the manager live in the city, even after some on the other side raised the issue when Penny lived for a time in Highlands Ranch after his divorce.
Clark was joined in the vote to hire Relph by Mayor Bruce Beckman and Councilmembers Peggy Cole and Jerry Valdes. Councilmembers Bill Hopping and Phil Cernanec voted with Brinkman on the other side.
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