SISTER SPAT: After drama on the dais, Aurora City Council approves new pact for Sister Cities program

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AURORA | The City of Aurora agreed to continue financing its sisterly relationships with several municipalities across the globe Monday night, despite fuming objections from one city council member and a public roil over the controversy.

By a vote of 8-2, Aurora city council members signed off on a $112,000 contract between the city and Aurora Sister Cities International, a separate nonprofit organization devoted to promoting educational, cultural and commercial ties between Aurora and a growing crop of international burgs.

Council members Barb Cleland and Charlie Richardson rejected the contract agreement. Councilwoman Renie Peterson was absent from the meeting, but procedural rules allowed Mayor Steve Hogan to cast the eighth majority vote.

Council member Charlie Richardson has repeatedly criticized Aurora’s Sister Cities program in recent months, and he made no exception Monday night. During a council study session before the regular meeting, Richardson did not hesitate to forcefully express his displeasure with the funding associated with the program, as well as the way the recent contract was approved.

Richardson also expressed exasperation with the way city staffers have allegedly responded to his requests for information regarding the financing of a recent Sister Cities trip to South Korea.

“I will characterize my efforts to find out how much public money was used on this trip — it’s like trying to open an oyster with a rubber spoon,” he said. “I get push back, I get lots of push back.”

Some two dozen local officials — including council members Brad Pierce, Bob LeGare, Mayor Steve Hogan and City Manager Skip Noe — attended a recent trip to Seongnam City, South Korea through the local Sister Cities group.

Aurora Sister Cities charged officials $1,030 to cover lodging and other limited expenses for five days of the trip, according to Karlyn Shorb, CEO of Aurora Sister Cities International. Attendees who stayed two additional days were charged an extra $500. Officials were responsible for covering their own airfare, which totaled about $1,500 per ticket.

Richardson has claimed that the city directly funded some portion of the expenses associated with getting local officials across the world. Officials have maintained no public funds — other than city-provided travel funds provided to city council members — were used on travel expenses for the excursion.

“I don’t think it’s any of your business on what I spend my money on,” Pierce said. “My trip was paid for by my funds — no city funds. It’s really none of your business, but I paid for my trip out of my funds.”

At the Monday night study session, Hogan vehemently scolded Richardson for repeatedly implying the city was using public money on the trip.

“I resent your attitude that we are lying to you or trying to hide something from you,” he said. “Charlie, you worked in this city for decades as the city attorney, and you know that you can’t get away with that. You know that can’t happen.

“So, for you to all of a sudden assume and suggest that that’s the case, is wrong. It is 100 percent wrong, and it’s inappropriate, and you should know better — of all people, you should know better.”

During the study session, Richardson presented Noe with a written request for the total amount of city funds used on the trip. Both Noe and Hogan told Richardson they’ve already provided him with that information, and that the city’s coffers were not tapped as a funding source.

The Sister Cities contract, which was later approved at the regular council meeting, will net Aurora Sister Cities $112,000 in 2017, according to city documents. Although the group technically operates as a separate entity from the city, the local chapter of the international organization receives about 70 percent of its funding from the city’s annual grant, according to Shorb.

With a total budget of around $160,000, Aurora Sister Cities raised slightly more than $49,000 from corporate and private donors last year, according to city documents. The local organization also receives a slew of in-kind services from the city, including some marketing support and office space.

Richardson said the lack of a specific term on the new contract all but guarantees the Sister Cities funding will remain a part of the city’s annual budget unless a majority of city council chooses to cut it out.

“I don’t think … that six council members will ever vote to take it out of the budget,” he said. “International travel at taxpayer expense is very seductive.”

Shorb pointed to potential business partnerships, a newly crafted youth exchange program between Aurora and Seongnam City, as well as a large Sister Cities conference — scheduled to take place in Aurora in 2018 — as evidence of the program’s success.

The International Sister Cities conference is expected to host more than 1,000 people and generate as much as $1 million in local economic impact when it comes to the Hyatt Regency Aurora-Denver Conference Center next summer, according to Bruce Dalton, chief of Visit Aurora.

Neil Krauss, director of initiatives and outreach at the University of Colorado Anschutz medical campus, praised the local Sister Cities program for possibly spurring business partnerships between medical device firms at the local academic hub and healthcare-focused companies in South Korea.

Several community members, largely from South Korea and Ethiopia, defended the Sister Cities program during the public comment portion of the June 5 meeting.

Shorb and others have also credited Aurora’s ties with a “friendship city” in El Salvador — a relationship fostered by the Sister Cities program — with landing a new Salvadoran consulate on South Havana Street. The international outpost is the first of its kind in the city.

After reigniting its Sister Cities program in 2014, Aurora has solidified official relationships with boroughs in South Korea, Ethiopia, Poland and Costa Rica.