Denver city council at large debate

The six candidates for two at-large Denver City Council seats debate issues Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at the Denver Art Museum. Shown from left are: Jesse Parris, Johnny Hayes, incumbent Deborah Ortega, moderator Wendy Brockman, Tony Pigford, Lynne Langdon and incumbent Robin Kniech.

Denver’s two at-large council members sometimes play a different role than their colleagues who represent a district.

They’re not on the speed dial  of their local neighborhood activists and they can spend more time addressing broader policy issues than some of their colleagues.

So, it made perfect sense that Tuesday night’s debate between the six candidates vying for those two at-large seats was a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from fracking to rent control to bus fares and gentrification.

About 40 people attended the 90-minute forum hosted by Denver Decides at the Denver Art Museum. They heard incumbents Deborah Ortega and Robin Kniech and challengers Jesse Lashawn Parris, Johnny Hayes, Tony Pigford and Lynne Langdon.

The candidates also discussed the more traditional topics of development and growth as they head toward the mail election that begins April 15 and ends May 7. Here are some excerpts from what they had to say:

-- Parris, a community activist, said he would insist that developers include low-income housing in their proposals.

“I’m running for poor and disenfranchised communities that have been gentrified, that have been displaced and bought out of their neighborhoods," he said. "We need to literally put a ‘we are not for sale sign’ on the city and let these developers know and these companies know that Denver is not for sale and that you can not just run amok.”

-- Hayes, a historian who sports an antiquarian beard, is a writer, actor and musician who advocates for the deaf community. He spoke about wanting the city to do more to attract filmmakers to Denver. “I’m a creative thinker and I’m thinking of creative solutions to solve a lot of Denver’s problems here," he said.

He also talked about giving neighbors a say to prevent displacement from gentrification.

“The community should have a say in what’s being put up in their neighborhood,” he said. “These are the people who built these neighborhoods, who gave them the character, who put the businesses in and then attracted these outside developers who want to build there.

-- Ortega first served as a councilwoman for District 9 from 1987 to 2003, then was elected to an at-large position in 2011, re-elected in 2015 and now is running for a third term in that citywide post. She pointed to her work on the board of Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corp., a nonprofit that has been building affordable housing in Denver for over 35 years.

“We have many working families that also can not afford to stay in our city and that is critically important,” she said.

Ortega also cited her role in bringing attention and preventing a proposal to do fracking for oil and gas extraction on Stapleton land north of 56th Avenue near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

-- Langdon said she would not be afraid to stand up against the status quo and initiate new action based on “outside-the-box” thinking when called for.

“I plan on being very accessible and out in the neighborhood,” Langdon said. “I want people to feel like they can come to me and I can hear from people directly. Not just my ideas or a developer’s ideas but obviously the neighbors and the citizens of Denver is the key.”

When asked how she envisioned what Denver might look like in 20 years, Langdon said she would like Denver to follow the example of Quayside, Toronto, a waterfront community with a lot of green energy innovation.

-- Pigford, a founding dean of the only all-boys public middle school in the region, said he would take firm stand on developers whose projects could bring in significant short-term money but whose plans do not align with the long-term needs of the city.

“I’d ask them to look for another city to do business in,” he said. “I think that unfortunately that’s not what’s been asked of them. Our city has been sold to the highest bidder.”

“The reason we have mass inequity and a broken housing market is because we haven’t collectively as a city council stood up to those development interests,” he added

Pigford said he would be willing to work with developers who bring more long-term financial and social benefit to Denver.

-- Kniech said she has said no to major developers such as one project located at 41st Avenue and Fox Street near where Interstates 70 and 25 meet.

She voted no because she believed the plan did not include enough housing for all income levels. She said that vote started a conversation among city officials that resulted in a far more inclusive negotiation on the Elitch’s property that obtained 15 percent affordable housing.

“So, I either say provide the equity or my answer is no.”

The forum was one of a series of municipal races that were video recorded for re-broadcast later this month on Denver’s Channel 8.

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