Wheels of Fortune

Down at the Regional Transportation District's lofty LoDo headquarters, good help has never been hard to find. The pay at the troubled transit agency is competitive, the benefits are excellent--and in some cases, there's even a bonus for quitting.

Paying employees to leave isn't yet common practice at RTD, but the agency has shelled out almost $100,000 in recent months to key departing employees. And the largest single payment went to a veteran employee in the offices of RTD's squabbling board of directors, where turnover has been remarkably high of late.

Last week the board hired its fourth executive assistant in nine months. The new hire replaces Sharon Powers, who left after only eight weeks on the job--and after well-publicized disputes among the elected boardmembers over secret confabs, the posting of meeting notices and the order of discussion items at board meetings. Several boardmembers have suggested that the incessant infighting among board factions, which are split by policy issues such as light rail as well as personality differences, drove her away.

It wouldn't be the first time. One of Powers's predecessors, Connie Morrill, went on disability leave last winter; sources close to the board say she informed them that her physician had advised her not to return because the stress of the job was making her ill. Her attorney eventually negotiated a settlement of $56,000--slightly more than a year's salary for Morrill--in return for releasing RTD from all legal claims stemming from her job-related ailment.

Morrill's settlement is one of three hefty compensation packages RTD has paid out in the past two years to departing employees, according to documents obtained by Westword. Former director of operations Richard Reynolds, who left his $83,000-per-year post in February, received more than $22,000 in severance pay and almost $13,000 in accrued sick leave and vacation benefits. Engineer Bill Jorgenson, the $68,000-per-year project manager for RTD's flyway ramp adjacent to Coors Field before his departure last year, received nearly $16,000 in severance pay and $7,600 in benefits.

Officially, all three employees left voluntarily, but RTD spokesman Scott Reed describes the actions as "contested voluntary terminations." In each case, the severance packages were paid in return for a release of "any and all conceivable claims" against the agency.

Severance pay for public employees is uncommon, particularly for non-union workers such as RTD's administrative staff. But general manager Cal Marsella defends the payments as "accepted business practice" among public transit agencies, particularly in cases of long-term employees who leave under trying circumstances.

"Virtually every [agency] has employed this strategy at one time or another," says Marsella, whose own contract with RTD includes a provision that he will receive up to nine months of severance pay if he is terminated before the three-year span of the contract.

Marsella arrived at RTD shortly after Jorgenson left and wasn't involved in that severance arrangement, but he says the package awarded to Reynolds, which he personally approved, was warranted. Once considered a leading contender for Marsella's job, Reynolds hadn't seen eye-to-eye with the new general manager on several issues. "Dick had a difficult time," Marsella says. "We decided it would be in our mutual best interest for him to leave, and I made the determination to go with a three-month severance package, in recognition of his time and service."

Officials won't comment on what claims, if any, Reynolds or Jorgenson might have had against RTD. Similarly, they decline to elaborate on the nature of Morrill's injury claim, citing the confidentiality of medical records. Morrill's attorney did not return repeated calls from Westword, but her settlement tabulation lists a $55,000 payment for personal injury as well as token payments of $500 each to settle possible age discrimination and workers' comp claims.

"We try to be specific enough so that it will stand up in court, while also covering the spectrum of any conceivable claim," notes spokesman Reed.

Although the injuries Morrill suffered while working for the board aren't clear, the question of who authorized the payment is even murkier. The board's executive assistant receives the fringe benefits of an RTD staffer but is hired by the board, not the general manager, and is technically a board employee. Morrill held the job for fourteen years, and Marsella says the decision to okay her compensation package rested with board chairman Ben Klein.

"I did not approve that, nor was it brought for my approval," Marsella says. "That was basically negotiated between the board and Ms. Morrill."

"That's not true," snaps Klein. "The staff, led by the general manager, did all the negotiating, did all the agreements, picked the figure. I never had anything to do with it at all."

Klein says he was aware of the negotiations with Morrill and would certainly have voted in favor of compensating her if he'd been given an opportunity "because of her long-term service and all the heat she's taken all those years." But he insists Morrill's package was "an administrative problem" handled by Marsella. Klein notes that the settlement agreement wasn't signed by him but by RTD chief attorney Jack Kennedy.

"I don't have authority to get anybody one dime down there," says Klein. "Do you think for one minute that I could authorize some $50,000 on my own, not [notify] the board, not bring it up at a meeting--and get away with it? Of course not."

But several people familiar with the Morrill case say that the settlement was negotiated by a staffer with Klein's blessing and that Klein would have had to approve the final package as Morrill's supervisor. (Under RTD bylaws, the board chairman functions as the agency's chief executive officer and has considerable latitude in running the board office.) Although the payment to Morrill came out of the board's budget, no vote was taken on the matter. Three boardmembers contacted by Westword say they didn't even hear about the deal until after it was completed.

Klein, though, denies acting on his own. "Bureaucrats will be bureaucrats and pass the buck," he says.

Regardless of how the deal was struck, boardmember Dave Bishop says he's uncomfortable with the notion of RTD spending tax dollars on severance deals. "I look at any kind of severance like this as hush money, especially when they don't even tell the board it's being paid," he says. "I think we're being taken to the cleaners on the whole thing."

Morrill's post has proven difficult to fill. Her first replacement, Jean Francisco, lasted several months but declined to apply for a permanent position. "She told me she would be better off working in a Total gas station," says boardmember Terri Binder.

Binder believes Powers, too, was caught in the crossfire of feuding boardmembers, who have turned meetings into marathon tirade-swapping sessions and have fired off competing communiques to the media accusing one another of violating open-meeting laws. In Powers's last week on the job, she was given conflicting instructions from Klein and others regarding the order in which various proposals on meeting-notification policy were to be heard at the August 20 board meeting.

"I have to admire her for standing up for what she believed in," Binder says. "She made the comment that Ben Klein would never be evaluating her."

Klein, though, says that he had no problems with Powers and that Binder and other boardmembers critical of the chairman, including Jon Caldara, are seeking to exploit her resignation for political gain. "The Caldara-Binder group are using poor Sharon Powers as a political football," he says. "It's election time. That's what this is all about."

Nine of the fifteen RTD board seats are up for grabs this fall, presenting the possibility of a shift in the near-stalemate of power among current boardmembers, who have divided 8-7 on crucial votes concerning light rail and other major expenditures. Even a slight change in the composition of the board could alter the entire direction of the agency--and give the secretaries a break.


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