Denver City Councilwomen Robin Kniech, Candi CdeBaca and Amanda Sawyer each are leading proposals that would change the city’s charter and, respectively, expand the council's budgeting authority, create a nominating commission for the city attorney, and grant council the authority to approve mayoral cabinet appointments.
The purpose is power — more of it for them, less of it for the mayor.
Kniech is drafting a proposal that would allow council the “flexibility” to do mid-year budget appropriations. Those funds could come from a handful of places — excess revenue or unspent budgeted money, for example — and council will have to choose one.
The new system would closely reflect those already established in cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco, as well as a few smaller cities.
Kniech wants to ensure council members can step in when a community’s financial needs were missed in the budgeting process, or when there’s something new, she said, like Denver’s eviction legal defense pilot, which missed the budget window due to “miscommunications and changing priorities.”
But there’s a balance to strike, she admitted when weighing her idea during council’s special issues city charter meeting on Monday.
“I don’t know that this is an every-year power … or that it should be thought of something we should plan our budget cycle to do," she said.
Councilwoman Kendra Black expressed concern that council members would have to “duke it out” to decide what projects get funded, especially when it comes to having “pet” projects.
But CdeBaca applauded Kniech’s idea, calling it “awesome,” and said the change could potentially encourage members to think more strategically about their own budgeting process, which would help them prioritize projects if midyear appropriations were needed.
“If this does come up, we have a list of priorities that benefit all of us or that we’ve already discussed and ranked, so there’s not that ‘duking it out,’" she said, “because even though that’s our job, I think that we can be strategic about it.”
CdeBaca — a first-time council member and vocal advocate for weakening Denver’s strong mayoral system — followed Kniech’s presentation with one of her own, in which she presented a draft proposal that would create a nominating commission for the city attorney. If adopted, Denver would be the country's first city to do so.
“A city attorney for the whole city,” she said. “That way, we could remove that bias that we have for the executive branch and create a city attorney that is not the mayor’s attorney, but rather a body that functions for the best of the city.”
CdeBaca’s plan drew inspiration from cities such as Seattle and Oakland, whose city attorney’s offices emphasize the importance of serving the public.
“That seems to be the shift we are looking at here,” said Lisa Calderon, CdeBaca’s chief of staff. “Who is the city attorney ultimately accountable to? Is it the mayor’s attorney, or is it to the people of Denver?”
Under the draft proposal, the mayor would appoint the city attorney, but council and the nomination commission would have to confirm.
Who would make up the committee is still in the works, as are several other of the plan's components, but some members agreed that a nominating committee of elected bodies — including the auditor, clerk and recorder, and the head of the new transportation department — could ensure adequate representation.
CdeBaca’s proposal is part of a package that includes electing Denver's sheriff and strengthening the Office of the Independent Monitor.
Sawyer’s proposal, which she recapped near the end of the committee meeting, would establish council oversight and approval of at least 10 mayoral cabinet appointments.
“It’s really meant to be more of a checks and balances in terms of who the mayor is considering putting forward,” she said. “It’s not meant to be a series of confirmation hearings.”
CdeBaca asked why the proposal was limited to charter positions instead of all 57 spots appointed by the mayor. Sawyer said she thought her way would not only enable council to make the most impact and best use of its time, but also serve as a signal to the mayor's office.
“At some point, there has to be professional respect,” she said. “There has to be working together. There has to be collaboration.”
Sawyer said she is pausing on her plan for now to see if she can combine her legislation with others’ as the council’s proposals take shape.
“It’s valuable to send as few proposals as possible to the voters, and as concise as possible,” she said.
Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who chairs the special city charter committee, recommended plans be solidified by February.
Charter amendment proposals would appear on the November 2020 ballot and be left in the hands of Denver’s voters.