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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Mayor Hancock, Reconstituted Council Take Up City’s Reins This Month | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

Editor’s note: Following is the first of a two-part series looking at the soon-to-be-sworn-in City Council, that will – hopefully – work in the best interests of Denver citizens for the next four years.

Get ready, folks: in the midst of turbulent economic seas, the captain and crew of the good ship Denver are about to undergo major changes before your very eyes.

While there’s no need to panic – the new characters bring with them a hopeful mix of experiential wisdom and fresh ideas – the water could get yet a bit more choppy before things settle down.

Michael Hancock, currently representing District 11 on City Council, will take over as our city’s 45th mayor on July 18. Hancock succeeds former Public Works boss Bill Vidal, who took over the duties of mayor when John Hickenlooper won his bid to become governor of Colorado.

Six of the 13 seats on council will also be filled with new faces at that same July 18 ceremony.

Denver is governed by a strong mayor/weak council combination that puts the chief executive firmly in the driver’s seat, while giving council a healthy portion of checks and balances with which to help keep things on track.

The mayor enforces all laws and ordinances; recommends legislation he feels would benefit the city and its residents; and approves or vetoes ordinances or resolutions passed by council.

While a strong mayor system gives the chief executive a great deal of power, that power is by no means absolute. Council must pass all new laws, and approve changes to existing legislation.

And although the mayor prepares the budget, it must be approved by council and can be changed by a majority vote. Hizzoner Hancock will have the power to nix council decisions by use of his veto, but that body can then override it with a nine-vote supermajority.

Among the returning councilmembers is District 7 (south-central and near southwest) representative Chris Nevitt. Nevitt is in his second term (councilmembers are limited to three four-year terms) and currently serves as council president.

“The big agenda item is – as ever – struggling with our budget difficulties. We’ve done our level best by restructuring departments, eliminating vacant positions and the like to shield the public from pain, and I don’t know how long we can keep that up. We’ve got to address cutting services once considered untouchable, or restructuring how they’re provided.”

Nevitt said, “There’s still a lot of sclerosis in how we deal with the business community and their projects. We don’t need to play dead and throw over all the barriers, but we definitely need to be more efficient and encouraging about how we deal with folks who’d like to do business here.”

His top District 7 priority is to move forward with a big-time redo of the I-25 and Broadway interchange. “The widening of Broadway is moving forward. We have funding for work from just south of the interchange to Mississippi Ave. We’ll move forward with the project as funding is secured.”

Jeanne Robb is in her final term representing District 10 (Capitol Hill, Congress Park, Cherry Creek, Country Club, Alamo Placita, the downtown Golden Triangle and points east). Re-examining the Cherry Creek Area Plan that governs development in the upscale residential/commercial neighborhood is high on her list of must-dos.

“Cherry Creek has probably had more planning attention than any area of the city,” said Robb, “but it’s one of the few that, even since the recession began in 2008, is still experiencing development pressure. The issues are the perennial ones – the amount of density will be under debate, as well as how to control traffic.”

Building a central Denver recreation center is also a hot-button issue. Denver purchased land at Josephine St. and Colfax Ave. in 2010 with part of an $11 million bond issue for land acquisition and site planning. It is currently being used as a dog park, awaiting funds for construction.

“I often call it ‘keeping the dream alive,’” said Robb. “I can tell you that if there’s a bond issue opportunity sooner rather than later, if I have any say, that recreation center will be in there.”

On a citywide basis, Robb wants to move forward with the Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative, which aims to increase the visibility of the small commercial districts serving our inner-city communities. “The Initiative is a way to take what we do for downtown and do it for the marketplaces in our neighborhoods. We need to take a hard look at best practices to market and brand our neighborhood retail. There’s lots more we can do.”

Mary Beth Susman will replace Marcia Johnson as the District 5 (east-central Denver) representative to City Council. She brings a background in technology and higher education to her new job.

“We’ve hit the ground running,” said Susman. “First on our plate is the development at 8th Ave. and Colorado Blvd. I sat down and talked with Sembler Co., who is negotiating to take over the property.” Sembler is set to close in January on a deal to purchase the 30-acre former Colorado Health Sciences Center campus for $34.8 million.

“I believe they (Sembler) have a real sense of our design guidelines and the neighborhood’s hopes for the area. They’re talking about a restaurant row along 8th Ave. of local businesses, and they’re negotiating with a natural foods grocer. They’re on a fast track to have it built out by early 2014.”

Technological efficiencies could help streamline city staffing as well as improving delivery of services, according to Susman. “I developed three online college programs,” she stated. “In one case, we realized that in order to register, there were 43 actions students had to complete with admissions, financial aid, etc. We got the departments to eliminate unnecessary steps and duplications, and got them down to nine, all of which can be done online. This approach might work with some city permitting applications. Why can’t we pay taxes online, or apply for a driver’s license online? Is there really a reason why someone needs to hand you a piece of paper?”

Debbie Ortega brings more council experience to the table than any of her colleagues. She served four terms as representative in District 9 (south-central/southwest) 1987-2003, and served as aide to former Councilman Sal Carpio for many years prior to that. Ortega was elected to one of two at-large positions.

Ortega believes Denver cannot simply “cut its way out of the current budget crisis. We need to invest our way out, as well.  No one likes incentives or ‘corporate welfare’ as some folks say, but it’s what brings business to town, and the ripple effect of bringing money back into the economy makes those investments worthwhile.

“Regardless of what we do to bring business to town, we have to work aggressively to improve our zoning, licensing, contracting and permitting procedures. We need to be viewed as business-friendly. If we’re not, (businesses) will go to neighboring counties where procedures are easier.”

Ortega is working on convening a task force to look at recommendations for tax incentives for the motion picture industry. “I’ve met with the governor’s new film czar, Donald Zuckerman, who’s working to put a statewide incentive program in place. We were the first state to have a film commission, but virtually nothing is happening here because they go to where the incentives are.”

The current council “can’t expect things to hum along as it has,” said Ortega. “We (the new councilmembers) all bring new insights and approaches and ideas as to how we want the city to move forward. We’ve got to get us out of this economic slump. It’s our big challenge.”

Returning for a last go-round in District 6 (Washington Park, Bonnie Brae, University Park, Cory Merrill and points near south and east) is Charlie Brown. Brown’s pull-no-punches style earns him kudos or curses, depending on which side of an issue you stand. “I call (the new term) my Final Four,” he said. “But I’m telling you – what’s that quote – I will not ‘go gentle into that good night.’”

Brown wants to eliminate or redo Denver’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance,  intended to make affordable housing available to low- to moderate-income working families. “This program ranks right up there with ethanol in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. It’s cumbersome for all sides. The developer has to set aside 10 percent of buildable units for affordable housing, or pay a penalty if they opt out. The buyer gets a home they can afford, but they can’t make a real profit off it because of sale restrictions.”

Fiscal notes should be attached to all spending measures that come before city council, Brown insists. “If you’re going to advocate a spending program, we ought to know what that’s going to end up costing, but a lot of the time, we don’t. Everybody needs to know the impact of a particular bill. It’s crazy to spend taxpayer dollars without that assurance.”

Addressing the budget gap, Brown asks, “What is the most dangerous animal in Denver? Is it the fox, the coyote or the chicken? No, the most dangerous animal in this city is the sacred cow. Our budget has programs that we don’t need, are outdated, that were started decades ago that we don’t need any more. Half a million here and there adds up.

“I’ll get killed on this, but one example is the Women’s Commission. It was started in the ‘60s when we needed it. We don’t anymore. There’s a long list in the yellow pages of people doing that work very well.”

Jeanne Faatz stands watch over Denver’s District 2 (far southwest). Another third termer, Faatz sees plenty of work yet to be done to stabilize her southwest Denver neighborhoods. “I continue to look at issues that erode neighborhood quality. Buildings sitting vacant, sidewalks, curbs and gutters.

“Target moved to Belmar. We’ve had an empty Albertson’s for three years. We’re working hard to keep the small economic centers vital and to see that neighborhood quality of living isn‘t eroded by those leaving properties go unkempt. It used to be that people always watered their lawns, but the high price of water has discouraged many families, and they change out grass for rocks.

“Structural changes are critical to fixing ongoing budget problems,” said Faatz. “To me that doesn’t mean increased taxes. There are many tax increment financing situations where we are diverting income away from the general fund to specific interests. The Union Station project created a whole new governmental structure diverting money for 30 years. No money goes to the general fund. We should insist that, as time goes on, an increasing percentage of such tax monies returns to the general fund.”

Faatz also questions the wisdom in spending for public arts programs in tight economic times. “We have one percent for the arts that we apply to any project over a certain dollar amount. Should we? The state doesn’t. We had a small bond project to widen a section of a road. It required one percent for art. People were frantically searching for a place to put the art.

“Whatever we do, we need to maximize basic services and minimize diversions.”

Peggy Lehmann’s District 4 (southeast) includes such retail centers as Tamarac Square and University Hills. She is concerned by ongoing shifts in the retail landscape. “I call it ‘retail leakage,’” said Lehmann. “Purchasing habits have changed dramatically because of the bad economy and the internet. We have large vacancies in shopping centers and commercial areas around the city. After being inactive the last couple of years, developers are beginning to work on these areas, and I’m not convinced we really know what should go where. I want the city to pay serious attention to that. Maybe a survey to get an accurate understanding of who lives around these centers, and determining when they walk out the door with credit cards or cash, what are they looking to spend it on?

“The whole issue of our recreation centers and how to make them viable,” concerns Lehmann, as well. “We need to provide a product to meet people’s needs, and we need to recover our costs. Right now our centers only recover 18 percent of the cost to operate. How do we, then – in light of the economy – structure things so we can have good buildings and programs?”

Editor’s note: Next month we will focus on Susan Shephard (District 1), Paul Lopez (District 3), Albus Brooks (District 8), Judy Montero (District 9), Chris Herndon (District 11) and Robin Kniech (At-Large).

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