Denver City Council is considering a handful of policy changes that would need voter approval in November before they could take effect.
The proposals — which require amendments to the city charter and therefore a green light from the public — range from strengthening the powers of the council and modernizing requirements that the body must meet to do its business, to creating a board for the city’s transportation department and ensuring the public has a say in some development projects.
On Monday, the council reconvened its Special Issues City Charter committee meeting, two months after the coronavirus pandemic put the meeting, and all other council committee events, on pause indefinitely. The focus of the meeting, chaired by Councilwoman At Large Debbie Ortega, was primarily on the two most recently introduced proposals, which were brought forward by Councilwomen Candi CdeBaca and Amanda Sawyer.
CdeBaca is seeking support from other council members to refer a citizens’ initiative to the November ballot that, if passed, would require voter approval of any commercial or residential development on land designated as a city park or conservation easement, an agreement in which a landowner gives up their right to develop a piece of land in exchange for a tax deduction.
The ballot measure, called Let Denver Vote 2020, was approved on April 21 by the Denver Elections Division and filed by five activists, including Harry Doby of Save Open Space Denver and Penfield Tate III, a former Democratic state representative and Denver mayoral candidate. The initiative is intended to “make sure the city is at the forefront of this very large parcel of land,” CdeBaca said, referring to what used to be known as the Park Hill Golf Course.
The former golf course has been the epicenter of controversy between those who want to develop the defunct 155-acre plot of land and those who want to preserve it as a park.
“What I have decided to do is to help our community out,” CdeBaca said, “as we all have witnessed with our primaries and voting situation nationally, it’s been a challenge for people to collect signatures.”
The group must garner 8,265 signatures by July 6 for the measure to make it before voters in November.
“For this situation,” CdeBaca continued, “it would be a challenge and also unsafe for us to encourage our members of the public to move forward with this ballot initiative when we have the opportunity to refer in order to give the voters a chance to weigh in on this.”
The proposal will be discussed further at the next charter committee meeting on May 18.
Sawyer’s charter change proposal, which also will continue to be fleshed out next week, would remove “outdated language to modernize the conduct of public business.”
The issue came to light when the council needed to meet virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic, but ran into some restrictions within the city charter, resulting in a hybrid meeting with a quorum of at least seven members sitting in council chambers and the others joining remotely.
Several council members, including Councilwoman At Large Robin Kniech, said they were “very supportive of the direction” Sawyer is headed, but that tweaks still need to be made before it’s ready to be advanced to the Finance and Governance Committee, the step required before the legislation is moved to and voted on by the full council.
The council is also considering another proposal of Sawyer’s, which aims to chip away at Denver’s strong mayor system by requiring City Council’s approval for 14 positions, including all cabinet heads, as well as the sheriff, chief of police and fire chief. (The mayor’s office isn’t happy about it.)
Other proposals moving forward come from Kniech and Ortega.
Kniech’s ballot measure would expand the council’s budgeting authority. As is standard in some cities across the country, such as Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, Kniech wants the council to have the flexibility to change Denver’s budget mid-year, after it’s law.
The power would not be used lightly, Kniech stressed on Monday, nor would the council be able to spend money the city can’t afford. A consultation with the city’s manager of finance also would be required.
“This is not about any particular mayor who is in power right now or any council that’s in power right now,” Kniech said, “but it is about making sure we can have a conversation where we see a gap, where we see a program that might be needed.”
Ortega has two ballot measures moving forward to the Finance and Governance Committee.
One would create a board for the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to advise the manager and review the proposed annual budget. The board will be made up of 19 members, six of whom will be appointed by the mayor, and 13 will be chosen by each of the 13 members of City Council. Members selected on the board must live in the districts of their appointing council member.
Ortega's other proposal would allow the council to hire professional services, including legal counsel. The need for this charter change, she said, was brought to the forefront when reviewing the massive contract for the Great Hall Project at Denver International Airport, which went sour and cost nearly $184 million to terminate.
Ortega said it’s “incumbent” upon the council to know what it’s approving. That's the “essence” of this proposal, she said.
The council will meet at 3 p.m. on Monday to continue the discussion. The meeting can be watched online at Denver 8 TV.