Littleton city manager's firing puts focus on growing unrest

Texts show discussions on Penny's future go back at least to May 21

Posted 6/17/16

When at-large Littleton City Councilmember Doug Clark introduced a motion to fire Michael Penny at a special council meeting, he said it was due to incompetence and a lack of transparency on the city manager's part. But others believe it is part of …

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Littleton city manager's firing puts focus on growing unrest

Texts show discussions on Penny's future go back at least to May 21


When at-large Littleton City Councilmember Doug Clark introduced a motion to fire Michael Penny at a special council meeting, he said it was due to incompetence and a lack of transparency on the city manager's part. But others believe it is part of a concerted effort to stop progress in the city, actions that may have included communications that violated open-meetings law.

"We have had, over the last six months, a multi-pronged approach to dismantle this city," District 1 Councilmember Bill Hopping said at the June 14 meeting, citing an attempt to abolish the city's urban-renewal authority as well as the voting down at the May 3 council meeting of a $200,000 streetscape study that would have provided recommendations for parking and safety improvements.

Council voted 4-2 to fire Penny, effective immediately, ending his nearly five-year tenure with the city.

A text message exchange between Mayor Bruce Beckman; his wife, state House District 38 candidate and former Arapahoe County Commissioner Susan Beckman; and District 2 Councilmember Jerry Valdes obtained by the Littleton Independent shows there apparently was discussion of firing Penny as far back as May 21.

In the exchange, the mayor appears to have told his wife that at-large Councilmember Peggy Cole had lost confidence in Penny and was asking if other councilmembers had. Valdes responded he told Cole he was not interested in firing Penny at that time, with Susan Beckman advising her husband not to repeat what Cole had told him, but rather to "stay neutral and encourage others to act."

The mayor said that while he spoke to individual councilmembers, he said he did not speak to more than one at a time, and thus did not violate open-meeting laws.

"The fact of the matter is there was no illegal meetings," he said.

But the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonpartisan alliance that works to ensure transparency in state and local government, sees it differently. After reviewing a screen shot of the text message exchange, attorney Steve Zansberg said it looks like a violation of open-meetings law.

While only two members of council took part in this exchange, he said it represents a "daisy chain" in which information was being shared among at least three councilmembers, essentially creating a private digital meeting place. Sunshine Laws state public business can only be discussed among three or more councilmembers in a public meeting.

Issues at play

Bruce Beckman denied that he, Clark, Cole and Valdes colluded to fire Penny behind the backs of Hopping, District 4 Councilmember Debbie Brinkman and District 3 Councilmember Phil Cernanec.

"I would say that each councilmember came to the conclusion on their own," he said.

Bruce Beckman said May 21, a Saturday, was a day in which he had received several communications from councilmembers who were upset with Penny's handling of several issues.

Clark's motion to fire Penny was seconded by Cole, and the mayor and Valdes joined in voting to fire Penny, with Hopping and Brinkman opposing. Cernanec was absent, taking part in the Ride the Rockies cycling tour.

Clark said Penny and other staff members have shown a lack of competence, specifically in the urban-renewal process, citing an issue in which the council passed the Sante Fe-area urban-renewal plan on staff advice, and the plan included land that was not within the city limits. Clark is in favor of abolishing the urban-renewal authority, Littleton Invests for Tomorrow.

The same night that Penny was fired, council held a study session with the LIFT board and the planning board to discuss the authority's future.

Clark also has criticized Penny over city staff's approval of The Grove, a controversial mixed-use development that has drawn protests from people who live near the development's site at Littleton Boulevard and Bemis Street. Clark introduced a motion last month to revoke the site-development plan and building permit for The Grove, prompting a legal threat from developer Zocalo Community Development. The council held an executive session on the night that Penny was fired to receive legal advice on the issue.

Clark, who was mayor when Penny was hired in 2011, said he introduced the motion because he had been trying in vain for months to get a discussion of The Grove put on a council agenda. He said Penny had suppressed documents of the staff's reasoning for allowing a use-by-right approval of the project since last August.

"It appears to me that the city manager and his staff made some decisions that violated the city code," Clark said by phone on June 13, the day before Penny was fired. One of these decisions, he said, is labeling the railroad corridor as a public right-of-way, which he said is incorrect.

Hopping and Brinkman criticized Clark for bringing the motion to fire Penny with Cernanec absent. Hopping said that had Cernanec been there, a motion Brinkman made to table the item until the next regular meeting would have passed, as it tied 3-3, with Valdes voting in favor of it. Valdes said that even had Cernanec been there, he should have recused himself due to a close relationship with Penny, which included presiding over the former city manager's recent wedding.

On June 20, Cernanec said he was disappointed in the decision to fire Penny and that he would not have recused himself.

Cernanec said he had let the mayor know he would be gone and had also left a message with Cole, asking that any decisions on major topics be pushed until the July 5 meeting.

"There was no big rush or something that couldn't have waited a few weeks," he said.

At the meeting, Beckman spoke at length criticizing Penny, saying the city manager withheld information from him and other councilmembers about an investigative report by a Denver journalist into a January murder-suicide and the Littleton Police Department's response to a previous domestic violence call at the home where it took place.

Community reaction

Former Littleton Mayor Susan Thornton criticized the decision to fire Penny, calling it a "sad and concerning day for the future of Littleton."

"It appeared to me that four councilmembers orchestrated the dismissal for very weak and personal reasons," she said. 

Norman Stucker, former South Metro Denver Chamber and Littleton Business Coalition board member, also lamented Penny's departure, saying he had been a business-friendly city manager in a city that, he says, has had a reputation for being unfriendly to business.

"I think (Penny) had a vision for Littleton's future," Stucker said.

Two of the major business moves under Penny's watch were the opening of Breckenridge Brewery on Santa Fe Drive and a large, mixed-use project at Dry Creek and Broadway called Littleton Village that is amid development.

Historic Downtown Littleton Merchants Association President Greg Reinke said the city manager position does not necessarily have a far-reaching effect on his group.

"Does it impact our business? No. City council impacts our business," he said.

Littleton resident Paul Bingham, who has been critical of the city's urban-renewal authority, said ousting Penny was necessary.

"It is sad to see anyone lose their job," he wrote in an email. "However, when that job is consistently not done well and leads to many undesirable outcomes, such as a poorly executed urban-renewal program ( LIFT), huge building projects (The Grove) being illegally approved and gone astray, along with an end-justifies-the means-attitude, termination is in order."

Littleton Colorado, Michael Penny, Kyle Harding, Bruce Beckman, Doug Clark


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