In one of the most drawn-out political rifts in recent memory in Englewood, two factions stand out in stark contrast in recent months: one claiming to push the city closer to true accountability, and …
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In one of the most drawn-out political rifts in recent memory in Englewood, two factions stand out in stark contrast in recent months: one claiming to push the city closer to true accountability, and others arguing that those critics contribute to a counterproductive show of theatrics.
That line in the sand appears not to be going anywhere anytime soon, particularly in the wake of a failed attempt to recall Englewood City Councilmember Laurett Barrentine — whose most visible supporters lead calls for more transparency — and the announcement by City Manager Eric Keck that he’ll step down from his position Oct. 5.
Kathleen Rinkel, director of finance and administrative services, has also decided to leave her position, officials said at a city council study session Sept. 24.
“I think Keck leaving is a good start,” said JJ Margiotta, owner of a business in Englewood and one of the most vocal critics of city officials. Margiotta, one of Barrentine’s most visible supporters, compared the situation to a “sinking ship.”
Former Councilmember Steve Yates, who supported the recall effort, said critics’ questioning of city officials amounts to “a show.”
“It’s not about gathering information,” Yates said. “It’s about creating conflict and trying to give a black eye to the city.”
Budget moves amid divisions
At the Sept. 4 city council meeting, Keck announced his exit amid what he has called a divisive few months for Englewood. Keck is Englewood’s top non-elected administrative official, who implements policy decisions made by the council.
Keck, who served as manager for four years, decided to leave to take a private-sector job in another state, he said. “Council dysfunction” was a small part of his decision, but his resignation was influenced by his family and the opportunity to make an impact on many people in the new position, he said.
The council has begun the process to hire a temporary manager — one step in the process to finding a full replacement, which could take several months.
On top of losing the city manager, the city is without Rinkel, the finance director, during the council’s finalization of the 2019 budget, scheduled to be voted on in early October.
“There’s a huge concern not having the CFO there during the budget process,” Barrentine said in a Sept. 25 interview.
Keck disagreed, saying it’s the city manager’s responsibility to bring the budget forward based on the city’s charter — the city’s underlying legal document — and that staff has done “the heavy lifting” to prepare the budget.
“The absence of the finance director, while disappointing, has not and will not hinder the process of approving the budget,” Keck said. “The acting finance director and my office are quite capable in completing the process.” He referenced Maria Sobota, the acting director.
Claim about inquiry
Rinkel was caught in the sights of Margiotta’s questioning about Englewood’s financial matters. Margiotta went to Rinkel’s office Sept. 17 with papers asking for information based on policy of the Internal Revenue Service, he said. The IRS requires tax-exempt organizations, like nonprofits, to make certain information available to the public.
Margiotta said he sought three years of financial data for two nonprofit, private bodies: the Englewood Environmental Foundation and Englewood McLellan Reservoir Foundation — commonly known as “EEF” and “EMRF” — that oversee property that the city has varying degrees of control over.
Rinkel was in a meeting and wasn’t there to receive the papers, Margiotta said, but he believes she left her position because of them.
Keck said the city provided an exemption letter from the IRS and denied Margiotta’s claim.
“Mr. Margiotta can believe what he wants, but Ms. Rinkel did not leave because of his request,” Keck said. “His assertions of corruption are aimed at the era before any of the current employees’ time with the city.”
Yates argued that EEF and EMRF’s data are public information. The city’s spending on the bodies is included in the city budgets, posted on Englewood’s website.
Keck said he is not able to discuss the reasons for Rinkel’s exit, but he said staff has been working on a “succession plan” in many areas of the city government, including for the finance department, and Sobota’s position “has proven to be fortuitous” with Rinkel’s departure.
Claims of improper actions
The recall election that narrowly decided Barrentine would keep her seat on council Sept. 18 — by 48 votes, or 3 percentage points, according to official results Sept. 27 — saw accusations of improper conduct by city officials raised, and that pattern still continues.
Keck has still taken criticism in the wake of his resignation announcement — one Margiotta repeated is the claim Keck violated city law by spending about $236,000 in an emergency purchase. The money was spent regarding a storage-area network, a type of computer-data storage, which had reached 99 percent capacity, according to the June 18 council meeting minutes.
According to an Aug. 20 council study session document from Keck, the money for the purchase was included in 2018 funding and came from the “IT network development” and “disaster recovery system” portions of the capital projects, or infrastructure, fund. A July 19 council request — a type of research to answer council’s questions on city matters — said council can allow emergency purchases under city charter law. The city council unanimously approved the purchase June 18.
Barrentine also asserted that Keck was improperly pushing a merger of the city’s Utilities and Public Works departments, which handle drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, and city infrastructure, respectively.
Barrentine has been critical of city operations, specifically public works and utilities, Keck said.
“Toward that end, (staff has) been working on eliminating duplicative functions and efforts and ensuring that better coordination and collaboration will occur in the future through the proposed merger,” Keck said. The change requires council approval and a vote is planned for October, he said.
‘Let the dust settle’
Barrentine sees Keck’s departure as an opportunity for council to think about what direction the city should go in general.
“Keck made it clear he was a change agent, and that’s what happened: a lot of (changes),” Barrentine said. Council should evaluate which to keep and which not to, she said.
The recall election brought people’s attention to “what’s going on in Englewood,” Margiotta said.
“I think the citizens, for a long time, thought the city was working in their best interest,” Margiotta said, adding, “That’s not necessarily true.”
Keck and city staff were trying to “spoonfeed” the council to rubber-stamp what they recommend, and Barrentine asks for documentation and tries to play a more hands-on role, according to Margiotta.
The election will likely embolden Barrentine’s core supporters, Yates said. The city will likely have some staff leave because Keck “was a phenomenal leader,” Yates added.
“We’re going to have some hiccups in keeping the city a good direction” until a new manager is hired, Yates said. “I don’t think we’re gonna see the same potential growth, planning on how to take care of critical infrastructure” and matters that weren’t taken care of in the decades before Keck, he added.
Barrentine feels there’s time to “let the dust settle” rather than making knee-jerk assessments to recent developments in Englewood.
Keck said he’s “not able to answer” what the recall election means for the city going forward, but he said his objectives, such as fiscal sustainability and emergency management, are moving forward and he’s confident high-level staff will continue the path.
“What I am more concerned with is how the council will move forward,” Keck said. The “group needs to pull together and do what is right for the entire community and not a narrow band of the constituency.”
Mayor Linda Olson was hopeful for a “season of civility in the midst of difference” going forward.
“I am optimistic that the negative narrative that has crept into our public square for the past few years is being met with a desire to find common ground to build on,” Olson said, “and celebrate what is great about Englewood.”
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