Nonprofit was approved to use city-owned home despite council members’ objections

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AURORA | A city councilman’s questions about a nonprofit’s use of a City of Aurora-owned house has revealed that the home was used since 2014 based on a verbal agreement with city staff — despite the objections of multiple council members.

This home, located at 10901 E. Warren Ave., is owned by the City of Aurora and has been used in recent years by a local nonprofit organization despite objections in 2014 by council members over the lack of a policy to govern the agreement. Matthew Gaston/Aurora Sentinel
This home, located at 10901 E. Warren Ave., is owned by the City of Aurora and has been used in recent years by a local nonprofit organization despite objections in 2014 by council members over the lack of a policy to govern the agreement. Matthew Gaston/Aurora Sentinel

Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson said this week he filed an open records request with the city for documents concerning an arrangement allowing Fair Share Jobs, Inc. to use the city-owned home at 10901 E. Warren Ave. at Havana Heights Park.

“I had no idea this was going on,” said Richardson during Monday’s regular council meeting.

When Aurora City Council recently reviewed a proposal to provide space in a city-owned home to a local nonprofit, both the nonprofit and city staff said the house was vacant. But the nonprofit had been operating in the home as of September 2014, with no clear policy in place to govern the agreement.

According to emails released by the city, multiple council members expressed reservations about moving forward with allowing Fair Share Jobs to use the home in September 2014.

In a Sept. 9, 2014, email, then-Ward IV Councilwoman Molly Markert’s said the agreement for use of the house “fits my NONBHN criteria: ‘not only no, but hell no.’” That same day, Ward V Councilman Bob Roth replied via email, “Now we have an agreement in principle for (Fair Share Jobs’) benefit and, in turn, our apparent endorsement. I am not comfortable with this.”

When Mayor Steve Hogan replied back the next day suggesting “it’s a little late now” to raise objections “unless folks want to turn it into a political football,” Councilwoman Marsha Berzins quickly replied: “Giving office space for one group over another sets a terrible precendence (sic). Yes, this can turn into a political football for the preferential treatment.”

By Sept. 11, 2014, Councilwoman’s Markert’s objections prompted Mayor Hogan to email Noe to “assure her that you will not ‘close’ on the deal until after the (Management and Finance Committee) meeting.” Thirty minutes later, Noe confirmed: “I will not sign the license with this group until this issue is resolved from a policy standpoint.”

Fair Share officials received keys for the home that same month. The policy discussion — which did not directly address Fair Share Jobs — did not go before the committee until Oct. 22, 2014, about a month later. The policy was later approved by the full council in March 2015, long after Fair Share jobs began using the home.

During a public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, resident Lori Flanagan said she sent a letter to Markert in 2014 questioning the use of the property based on Aurora’s zoning code.

“It has been designated as a park,” she said. “The use of the building for parks and recreation seemed logical and acceptable. The use for police paperwork seemed logical and acceptable. It didn’t seem the 501(c)(3) organization fit the criteria.”

At a December 2015 meeting where council gave initial approval for a proposed lease in study session, Tom Barrett, director of Aurora’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department, said the property was used by park rangers. The information included about the proposal at that same meeting  also described the home as vacant.

But city officials did not order Fair Share Jobs to stop using the home until Jan. 27 of this year — one day after city staff determined the property was not zoned for that use.

Markert said the council’s discussions in 2014 led her to believe the city would not move forward with the agreement.

“Imagine my surprise when I noticed the same nonprofit advertising on their website that they have an office at Warren and Joliet as recent as February of last year, which would be within three months of council saying ‘no,’” she said referring to a Fair Share Facebook post from last year that listed a volunteer meeting happening at the home.

In a review issued Feb. 1 by Deputy City Manager Nancy Freed, it was determined that “it was a mistake to grant verbal approval to Fair Share Jobs for occasional use” of the home, and that “internal procedures to validate zoning for requests by outside groups to use city facilities needs to be enhanced.”

Skip Noe on Monday April 13, 2015 at Aurora Municipal Center. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)
Aurora City Manager Skip Noe. (File photo)

Noe ordered the city’s internal audit manager to review Freed’s findings that same day.

PDF: Deputy City Manager Nancy Freed’s Feb. 1 Review of the Warren Avenue House’s Use

After the meeting, Noe confirmed that city staff had given Fair Share access to the home in September 2014 as well as keys to the property, with no policy in place on such a use.

“We acknowledged that permission was given for this group to use this facility for a number of evening meetings to be held by their board,” he said, later adding that authorizing the temporary use of the home as a meeting space wasn’t a good decision in hindsight. 

Fair Share chairman James “Dr. Daddio” Walker said after the meeting the nonprofit was given keys to use the building but would not give any more information about the nonprofit’s agreement with the city.

“No one went over and squatted and took over the building,” he said.

Noe added that Fair Share’s use of the building was similar to what the city allows for other groups that use city facilities.

“There are groups that have used that building for various meetings over a long period of time,” he said. He added that the city provides an open reservation system for groups to use almost every conference room in the Aurora Municipal Center and that those groups do not need council approval. He said the permission given to Fair Share was no different.

“The only permission that was given to this group was for board meetings, and that was our understanding and that was within our authority to do,” he said. “It’s not the same use that was anticipated with the license agreement that was proposed. That was a more permanent occupancy where they (Fair Share) would have office hours during the day, etc.”

Noe stood by the park staff’s description of the building as “vacant” when the issue was presented to city council members in December.

“It was vacant in terms of our understanding of how it was arranged, was they (Fair Share) were going to be able to use it for a number of evening meetings, but the rest of the time, it was vacant,” he said.

Aurora has licensing agreements with Aurora Sister Cities, Visit Aurora and SolarTAC to use free city space in exchange for providing services to the city.

Fair Share Jobs, Inc, a nonprofit formed three years ago to reduce the high unemployment rate for African Americans in Colorado, requested use of the city-owned space to provide training and working space for volunteers and staff.

Noe has previously faced a failed no-confidence vote against him in January 2015 after five councilwomen accused him of treating them unfairly.