OURAY – Ouray residents are rallying to the support of long-time City of Ouray Public Works employee Ed Witherspoon this week, whose job is on the line after an apparent incident that may have involved blasting with a lapsed explosives license, according to some sources.
Witherspoon declined to comment on the circumstances that have threatened his employment with the City of Ouray, but did confirm he was placed on leave with pay late last week, and that his employee vehicle keys and cell phone were confiscated on Tuesday, Dec. 10. “I don’t know what the outcome will be,” he said. “We are still in the middle of things.”
Nor would City Administrator Patrick Rondinelli and Public Works Director Dennis Erickson comment on the specifics of the situation that has led to Witherspoon’s potential termination as a city employee. State law strictly forbids employers from discussing personnel matters in public.
“It’s a personnel matter and that’s all I can say,” said Erickson, Witherspoon’s direct supervisor for the past year-and-a-half.
“A lot of people think they know about what is happening, but perceptions aren’t necessarily accurate,” Rondinelli added. “We as an organization can’t comment on the matter. The laws are there to protect the employee.”
Witherspoon has worked for the city for 15.5 years. During that time, he has touched the lives of many Ouray residents, who are now flooding City Hall with calls and letters of support, praising Witherspoon’s expertise, institutional knowledge and spirit of community service.
Ouray Vista resident Tom Henderson was among the letter-writers. “When I think of what exemplifies the City maintenance staff, I typically think of Ed Witherspoon,” Henderson said. “He has always been friendly and willing to answer any questions, but in doing so he has consistently represented the City well and spoken of the City in positive terms. Ed appears to be very knowledgeable of the City’s water system and I believe he has worked in a highly responsible way to assure our drinking water is properly treated. This in itself would seem to be an extremely valuable asset. I have always been impressed that he was actively contributing to the job and not just passing time to get a check.”
Dan Fossey, Witherspoon’s former supervisor, who resigned from the position of Ouray Public Works Director in the summer of 2012 under a cloud of controversy over the city’s second water tank project project on County Road 361, had nothing but praise for his former employee.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “I know Ed personally, and I hired him at the city. He is the best employee I ever hired there – the type that showed up for every emergency, every callout. He was a stellar employee. Of course, none of us are perfect, but he worked hard and gave a great deal to the city. I hope there is a good outcome from this.”
Witherspoon, who comes from a mining background, “took the initiative to study and get his blasting license years ago,” Fossey said. “He took on the personal liability that comes with it and saved the city a great deal of money to do blasting jobs.”
Fossey was one of multiple sources interviewed for this story by The Watch who stated that the incident leading to Witherspoon’s potential termination had to do with Witherspoon working with explosives on a city job after his blasting license had lapsed. This information has not been corroborated by city officials or Witherspoon.
Fossey plans to contact Mayor Pam Larson about the matter. “I think she is fair; hopefully I can talk to her and express my thoughts,” he said.
CITY MUST FOLLOW STRICT PROCEDURES
Larson confirmed Tuesday evening that she has heard from many community members who are concerned about Witherspoon’s employment status. She said there is some misinformation circulating regarding his pending termination, and emphasized that the city has a very strict procedure it must follow when an employee has been recommended for termination.
This procedure, as spelled out in the City’s personnel manual, begins at the level of the employee’s immediate department head or director who conducts an investigation that may lead to a recommendation that the employee should be disciplined or let go. “The director has the authority to discipline the person, but not to fire them,” Larson said.
The employee can then appeal the decision of the department head to the City Administrator, who conducts his or her own investigation into the matter and determines whether or not the recommendation to fire the employee is warranted.
“The administrator looks at the facts, talks to the department head and the employee, and anyone else with firsthand information of the incident,” Larson said. The employee can then appeal that decision and ask for another hearing with the city administrator.
If that outcome is contested, the matter may ultimately be taken all the way to the Mayor.
Regarding the current situation with Witherspoon, Larson said, “We haven’t gotten past ‘Point A.’ It is still in the director’s hands. There has been nothing to do with the city administrator or council.”
Because the dispute may ultimately come all the way to Larson for resolution, she said she is “trying to stay neutral at this point because that is my job. That is what Patrick [Rondinelli] is doing as well.”
However, Larson said, she is well aware of the public concern over the matter, and the desire of many community members to discuss the situation with council in an open setting. “I am trying to figure out, at what point do you bring it to the public, or don’t you,” Larson said. “I am working on that piece; until we get to the point where the employee requests a hearing from me, the city’s mute. We can’t give details from our point of view.”
Larson emphasized that no one with the city is contesting Witherspoon’s general merit as a human being. “One of the things that is sad is that no one disagrees that Ed is a great guy,” she said.
She also expressed frustration that she and the council members cannot speak more frankly about the issue. “It appears that we have something to hide, and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “We, by state law, are protecting the employee by not speaking about the matter.”
Larson anticipates that there could be quite a crowd at next Monday’s regularly scheduled council meeting. But, she said, she will likely steer public comment away from personal testimony on Witherspoon’s behalf, and focus the discussion on the process as spelled out in state law and the city’s personnel manual regarding employee termination.
This might not sit well with many of Witherspoon’s supporters, like Vicki Caldwell, a resident of the Mineral Farms subdivision on County Road 361. Witherspoon, for years, has worked as an independent contractor with the Mineral Farms Water Users group to maintain its water system which integrates with the city main as it descends from Weehawken Springs.
“I am really concerned that council is not taking any initiative in letting there be a voice for citizen input for some of the things that are happening in the city,” said Caldwell. “We are all feeling really helpless; how can one make all the decisions, without any input from council or city residents?”
HOME RULE CALLED INTO QUESTION
The incident regarding Witherspoon has triggered concern among many Ouray area residents about the level of turnover in key city positions over the past year and a half – including Fossey’s resignation and the recent mass exodus from the Ouray Police Department that included Police Chief Leo Rasmusson and two police officers – as well as the extent of power over personnel matters allegedly granted to the city administrator under Ouray’s Home Rule Charter, adopted six years ago.
Ouray resident Margaret Henderson articulated this concern: “Does council have the correct authority to ‘run’ the city?” she wondered. “They are apparently told by legal to keep ‘hands off.’ We have witnessed considerable instability. Is this good management? We place our trust in elected officials, yet they seem not to be able to exercise much if any control over the most expensive and important assets of the city operation, people.”
Rondinelli said that his job description and level of authority has not changed under Home Rule. “I have exactly the same job description I had nine years ago when I started,” he said. “We have always had a council manager form of government. It’s what 90 percent of municipalities follow, not to mention the most common form of municipal government followed nationally.”
Larson, who headed up the committee that drafted the Home Rule Charter, concurred. “When we went from a statutory municipality to home rule, there were very few changes in the way the city functions,” Larson said. “The administrator’s position is same as it was before. There are things we gain with home rule, but when it comes to the structure of the way it works, it’s the same. The administrator hires and fires; that’s the way it is.”
However, she said, “council has the ability to put into place policies that can involve more input if they want more input.”
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