AURORA | A city council study session Monday quickly spiraled into a wide-ranging argument on homelessness policy, confidentiality and the role of the mayor when Councilmember Nicole Johnston accused Mayor Mike Coffman of leaking sensitive information discussed in council executive sessions.
Johnston and other councilmembers also said Coffman’s recent statements on social media had confused the public about the city’s stance on homelessness encampments during the pandemic and threatened ongoing negotiations to open a shelter.
Coffman denied violating any rules and announced he’ll introduce a city-wide camping ban to curb homeless encampments. The city’s attorney said Coffman had violated confidentiality rules of city council executive sessions.
The argument Monday, threaded with legalese, struck the center of a gripe some council members have with Coffman’s ambitious approach to the mayor’s seat. Coffman introduces his own policy proposals and regularly tweets his own views in the context of a city government system that doesn’t allow the mayor much power — at least, on paper.
Unlike neighboring Denver, city policy is made by city council members often not including the mayor. Policy is then implemented by City Manager Jim Twombly. That office also handles all day-to-day administration of the city.
Recent mayors have seen the role as a figurehead involving ribbon-cutting, relaying the consensus of the city council and steering business during contentious city council meetings. But unlike recent mayors, Coffman was elected in 2019 after a high-profile political career in state government and a decade in Congress.
This month, council members and city staff were working behind the scenes to open the new, winter shelter.
Officials hadn’t released details about the winter shelter because the terms of a building lease and operating agreement were still in negotiation.
Coffman tweeted Oct. 12 that Aurora would soon be starting a shelter of its own, possibly allowing the city to “be more aggressive about closing down these encampments once we have an alternative place for them to go.” In a post on Oct. 6, he’d already announced the shelter would be in a “vacant warehouse” in an industrial sector of northwest Aurora.
Providing a Temporary Shelter for the Homeless pic.twitter.com/vFYJxqXgCv
— Mayor Mike Coffman (@AuroraMayorMike) October 6, 2020
In the posts, Johnston and City Attorney Dan Brotzman said Coffman likely announced select confidential information that originated in a city council executive session. Officials were discussing the shelter lease and operating agreement.
“That’s a problem, because it gives the property owner some leverage in the negotiations,” Brotzman said.
Plus, Councilmember Alison Coombs and Johnston said Coffman’s statement about breaking up encampments conflicted with the city’s own policy to generally not break up homeless encampments.
That’s based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city has sometimes broken up encampments when they become too large or too dangerous, according to officials.
Johnston said Coffman jumped the gun with his public posts, which were reported by the Sentinel.
“It’s causing a lot of problems,” Johnston said of Coffman’s public statements. “We are, as a council, getting constituents saying, ‘What’s going on with this homeless camp, are you doing a camping ban, are you doing this or that,’ and it is snowballing to be a huge problem. And it started by violating executive session rules.”
Coffman, backed by Councilmember Francoise Bergan, said he hadn’t damaged any negotiations to open the shelter. Officials said Monday the plans are still moving forward.
He also told Johnston it’s his prerogative as a politician to post on social media.
“The fact is that I am a political figure,” he said. “And, there are times when the press is going to write down what I say. And there’s nothing I can do about that — in fact, I want that to happen.”
Johnston said the position of mayor comes with influence Coffman wrongly uses to suggest he speaks on issues from a position of power his office and position does not wield under Aurora’s form of government.
“It’s a problem when it seems like there’s more of a focus to be in the news as a political figure than doing what’s best for the city,” Johnston said in response.
“That’s a political decision, first of all. And the fact is, I’ve been around for a long time. And a lot longer than you have,” Coffman told Johnston. “And, when I say something, people look at it. It might not be the same for you.”
“Then, we have some issues,” Johnston said.
Late this summer, Coffman was criticized by community members and others on the city council when he acted alone in confronting two members of the city’s new police reform committee. He asked two members involved in a class-action lawsuit against police for alleged brutality during June and July protests to remove their names from the lawsuit. The two committee members said the move was inappropriate and “bullying.” Some city council members were concerned that Coffman gave the impression he was speaking for the city or the council, rather than just himself.
Johnston this week said a city committee will be scrutinizing the rules of executive session to limit confidential information from leaking before officials are ready to announce plans like the warehouse shelter.