The Littleton Independent spoke with Relph about his time with the city, how he secured council’s approval on major initiatives and what comes next for Littleton after he leaves.
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On Dec. 8, Littleton City Manager Mark Relph announced plans to retire in June.
Relph, who has a 35-year career in public services with cities and communities across the U.S., first began his tenure with the City of Littleton as its public works director in 2015. He was named acting city manager in 2016 before officially serving in the role in 2017.
A veteran of public affairs, Relph oversaw several of the most major policy proposals adopted by Littleton’s city council in years with the Envision Littleton Plan, Comprehensive Plan and Unified Land Use Code that seek to overhaul the city’s planning, zoning and development processes. Relph also worked on the frontlines of Ballot Issue 3A, which raised the city’s sales tax by 0.75% after it was approved by voters in the November election. The new revenue will fund the city’s Capital Projects Fund, which pays for vital city infrastructure upkeep and which was projected to hit $0 by 2025 without 3A’s passage.
The Littleton Independent spoke with Relph about his time with the city, how he secured council’s approval on major initiatives and what comes next for Littleton after he leaves. This interview has been edited for clarity.
You’ve served multiple roles within the city staff including as public works director in 2015 and acting city manager in 2016. What made you want to be involved with the City of Littleton to begin with?
I’d been working with the public sector for 35 years … I think I’ve always had this interest in trying to work with people to figure out what’s the problem or opportunity that we’re trying to address. I think I’ve been able to take that approach throughout my career and it’s been very gratifying. I remember talking to my predecessor (for Littleton city manager) and he wanted to make sure that I knew what the challenge was and he was looking for somebody who was going to be a little more progressive in looking at the system and services … and I love the challenge. I think as I look back I haven’t shied away from taking on big issues.
Those big issues have called for big proposals and as city manager you’ve overseen city council’s adoption of several major initiatives, from the Envision Littleton Plan in 2018 to the Unified Land Use Code in October of this year. At its core, what did you hope to achieve for the city with these plans and policies?
One of the issues that was clear (when beginning as city manager) was an update to the development code to make change and lasting change. That’s where the Envision Littleton plan came about. When I had the (initial) conversation with city council, it was talking about “what is it we hope to achieve, what’s the problem we’re trying to address?”
As you evaluate affordable housing or the character of neighborhoods all of that comes through policy decisions and that’s how you get the Comprehensive Plan and the ULUC (Unified Land Use Code). You can’t just jump to the answer to fix the development code. As we look to a code that hasn’t been updated since the 1970s … you have to go back and have a conversation: “What’s the intent here? How do we see the City of Littleton, our community in the future?” We went through thousands of conversations trying to answer that question.
It’s been a long process to get us to this point and we’re not done with council, I’ve told them from the beginning that it’s not a one and done deal. We’re on a clock, two years have gone by since we adopted the Comprehensive Plan so in another three years we’re going to be back here analyzing if the decisions of the plan are still valid.
Though plans like the Unified Land Use Code passed council unanimously, some of its aspects have been met with concern from citizens. What do you say to those who have been critical of these overhauls to the city’s zoning and development guidelines?
Putting together a plan, it’s never perfect and things change. The challenge, of course, is that in local government it is never realistic to think that you’re going to have 100% support for everything that you do. We all know that. (What) I have tried to put in place here, and in the culture of this organization, (is) that’s it’s about how we approach the work and how we actively listen. (You have to) identify the problem or the opportunity. People may not agree with the conclusion at the end, but what they’ll say is the city did spend its time to identify the opportunity or the problem.
Along with those major projects you mentioned, you also took a leading role in securing funding for the city’s Capital Projects Fund with the passage of Ballot Issue 3A in the November election. With voters’ approval, the city essentially averted what would have been a financial crisis. How were you able to help sell 3A to voters?
Having nearly 60% in favor of a ballot issue of this consequence was a major political statement, and it goes back to the same approach of “what’s the problem we’re trying to solve here?” This conversation (of the Capital Projects Fund) has been going on even before my time as city manager. We spent a lot of time communicating to our community that we have to address this.
Most people, in their daily lives, spend very little time connected to their local government. They have families to raise, jobs to maintain and as long as the city seems to be moving along in a perceived positive way, they don’t get involved. But in this particular case we had to bring it to their attention, we owed it to them because if we didn’t address this it was going to become a crisis. Once again, those that are successful explain the problem upfront.
As city manager, you served Littleton both before and during COVID-19. Like all communities across the country, Littleton was battered by the pandemic. Looking back, how do you feel you handled the crisis?
I’ve been through multiple cycles like this. Suddenly your revenue is cut out from underneath you and you have to act quickly. Did I know that we were going to have a pandemic … no. But I was ready, in my opinion, I knew what I had to do. I told the council, these are difficult times and I won’t hesitate to protect the financial stability of the city. In the first six months I had to eliminate $2 million in the city’s budget to be ready. You can’t reach a point where the costs exceed the city’s revenue. Whenever you go through something like this, those who remain in the organization will always remember it. We had to lay people off, we had to make some tough decisions. You won’t forget it.
As Littleton continues to rebound from COVID, it has a lot to look to in its future. From unspent federal aid to new zoning and transportation guidelines, how do you feel about the state of the city as you prepare to leave your role?
I feel like the future of Littleton is very bright. I do want to have a much more detailed plan about how to use federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds and the process for how to identify future projects from 3A. The two are somewhat linked … I think the federal dollars may allow us some flexibility to allow the staff and resources in play to get ready for that work. I would also like to suggest to council how we may use some of the federal funds for business development. We have at least a full year, in my opinion, of trying to deal with (COVID) recovery.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the city as it looks to the future?
I think growth is going to be a continuing tension within the community. What is the proper level?
While the ULUC has tried to provide this guidance … I think how that plays out over time is going to be what the City of Littleton has to pay attention to. In a larger sense, I see growth as being a much more demanding issue for the entire Font Range and Littleton will not be exempt from it. There’s no way to try to isolate ourselves, and we have to be a regional player. How do you protect a community character without this huge highway going through your community? It’s going to be a challenge. Now, I will say that having the financial resources of 3A is going to make that challenge a lot easier for us to try and address in the longer run.
As you prepare to retire, your more than three decades of work in public service will also come to an end. How does it feel to have your role as Littleton’s city manager be your send off?
I kind of feel like Peyton Manning after he won the Superbowl. I’ve done some amazing things in my career and I’m proud of every one of them (from working in) Grand Junction and Shoreline, Wash. But I think my time in Littleton was special not just because of the role I played but because of the connection I made with the community. It was personal. We have great people and a great community, and I did not want to see the quality of life degrade. To end my career on having the success of 3A and a brand-new city council … I’d say I just won the Superbowl.
This is an emotional challenge for me. To step away from a 35-year career in public service is hard … but I just wish all the best for the people of Littleton. It’s been a real honor.
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