Denver City Council Seeking Plenty Of Changes
It is that weird political season that comes every four years.
We’ve ended this year’s municipal election season, and will see what changes the newly elected officials will – or will not – bring. We’re readying for another convening of the Colorado Legislature next month. And we are also bracing ourselves as next year’s national elections – presidential and congressional – will focus the lens through which all of these things occur and are viewed. Be ready.
For this month, let’s focus locally.
The outcome of this spring’s city elections reflected the voters’ desire to make development more equitable and compatible with the city’s wonderful and diverse people and neighborhoods. Denver’s five new city council members have talked about doing things differently and bringing change to city government.
They have also shown a willingness to back up their talk with action. They have already voted to not renew contracts, and they have embraced the “Special Issues City Charter” committee as a venue to institutionalize change.
Redefining the relationship
Let’s be clear, Denver has periodically adjusted the charter for needed updates or improvements. Many have been a matter of form – in 2017 the Department of Environmental Health was changed to the Department of Public Health and Environment. In 2011 we allowed the Auditor to appoint a Deputy Auditor.
Some changes have been more significant. In 2004 Denver voters made the Clerk and Recorder an elected position rather than a mayoral appointment. In 2005 voters gave council the authority to approve intergovernmental agreements and revenue contracts. In 2006 the Department of Revenue became the Department of Finance. And in 2016, in response to perceived abuses in the Department of Safety and the administration’s failure to correct them, voters put the Office of the Independent Monitor and the Citizen Oversight Board into the charter.
Typically the process is done by the administration working with the city council, because only the council can place proposed changes to the city’s charter on the ballot. This time, it is clear that the council is leading the charter change process. Some council members have said privately – and sometimes not so privately – that many of the currently proposed charter changes are needed to redefine the relationship between the mayor and council due to perceived excesses of the current administration.
A review of a few of the proposals seems to evidence this perception.
One, sponsored by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, would make the Denver sheriff an elected position instead of a mayoral appointee. From approximately 1902-1911 and 1915-1920 the Sheriff was elected. It is believed that the elected position was eliminated by then-Mayor Ben Stapleton, openly a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as a way to consolidate his power. That protocol has continued to the current day.
Ongoing issues within the Department of Safety over the years are well known. The city has paid millions to settle lawsuits and claims of excessive force that have caused injury and death. CdeBaca has noted, among other reasons she supports the change, that the Sheriff’s Office “continues to be plagued by cost overruns, rising assaults, inadequate services, low staff morale, multi-million-dollar settlements, overcrowding and mismanagement.”
Lessons from the Great Hall
A second proposal, sponsored by At-Large Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, would allow the city council to hire outside professional expertise as needed within the scope of its duties. Ortega was an outspoken critic of the fatally flawed Great Hall Project at the airport, and now-unraveled contractual relationship with Great Hall Partners.
As city council was seeking to review the particulars of the 30-plus year arrangement and analyze the complicated financial structure, five of its members sought to hire outside legal assistance using pooled funds from their own office budgets to help review key sections of the complex contract. That request was denied by the administration. Instead, council was given one week to try and digest and understand the agreement.
Ortega voted against the project, citing the fact that council only had one opportunity to discuss the contract in committee. As she has repeatedly said, she never (and perhaps no council member ever) saw the full financials even after she signed a non-disclosure agreement. Correcting this situation is one of her highest priorities.
The language of the proposal has already been drafted and is straightforward:
“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, the city council as a whole may, from time to time and without executive branch approval, contract for professional services that the city council determines necessary to aid the city council in carrying out its duties and responsibilities under this Charter and the Denver Revised Municipal Code.”
A third proposal, sponsored by newly-elected Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, would give council the authority to consent to mayoral appointments. That would include the managers of Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Finance, Safety, General Services, Human Services, Aviation, Public Health and Environment, Community Planning and Development, the City Attorney and the Director of Excise and License.
As drafted, once the mayor nominates candidates for those positions, the council would have 30 days to consent to the appointment. If a candidate is rejected, the mayor must submit a new nominee to go through the same process. Once consent occurs, the appointee serves, as they do now, at the pleasure of the mayor.
As seen on TV
A final proposal, also sponsored by Councilwoman CdeBaca, would convert the position of the Independent Monitor to a position elected by city council rather than a mayoral appointee.
A committee appointed by the city council would include one person from the Citizens Oversight Board and recruit candidates for the position that would be publicly advertised. Three top candidates would be recommended to the full council. Once appointed, the Independent Monitor would serve for a term of four years and could only be removed for gross misconduct, incompetence or failure to perform their duties.
The Independent Monitor would be required to request reappointment at least 120 days before the end of the term. Neither the Independent Monitor nor any member of the office could be former members of the police, sheriff or fire departments.
The committee’s work is not concluded. It is anticipated that all of the 13 members of council will have at least one proposal for consideration. Meetings are held every other Monday and are open to the public.
As part of her commitment to transparency, Councilwoman Ortega has required all of the meetings to be televised on the city’s station, Channel 8. All of the meeting minutes, agenda and videos are available on the council website (go to denvergov.org and click on the link to city council).
Just reviewing these four proposals makes clear this councils’ desire for significant changes. Many in the community have expressed desires for just this type of resetting of the power dynamic in city government. Hold on – it appears that you are about to get your wish.
See you in January when we will talk about the General Assembly, which reconvenes on Jan. 8. Happy holidays to you and your families.
Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney in Denver. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003. His adult daughter was born and raised in Park Hill, and Tate and his wife Paulette remain in the neighborhood. Tate’s regular political column resumes this month after a brief hiatus while he made a bid for mayor earlier this year.