Denver City Council’s initiative to require council approval for certain mayoral cabinet appointments is indeed a solution in search of a problem. Sadly, it will also invoke the law of unintended consequences by persuading talented performers to stay away from serving in the city.
Also read: POINT | Council needs a say on mayoral picks
I don’t reach these conclusions lightly, but rather with concern and apprehension after studying the proposed Charter amendment, the reasoning behind it, and the people it will impact. I have also reached them based upon my engagement in Denver’s civic environment for many years and my past public service as Denver city attorney.
Proponents argue that other cities and levels of government require the legislative branch to confirm executive branch appointments. They point to the U.S. Senate’s role in presidential appointments for the Cabinet and judiciary. Aside from the immediate reaction (do we think that process is going well?), the second reaction is, why do we need this in Denver and what is the problem we are trying to solve?
Denver has a “strong mayor” form of government. We put this in place a century ago because our predecessors decided that a weaker system didn’t work; instead, the voters determined that they wanted one person to hold accountable to make Denver’s government effective, efficient and responsive.
And over the years, our system has served us well. In the past 35 years, Mayors Pena, Webb, Hickenlooper and Hancock not only imagined a great city, but also had the responsibility and authority to turn those dreams into one of America’s most desirable and respected municipalities. For example, in the past few months, Mayor Hancock has enacted swift safety measures to combat our COVID crisis, save lives, and protect our economy, while other governmental partners across the country dither with infighting.
Will this proposal ensure that we get the best people possible to serve as Cabinet officers to manage our most important departments? I don’t think so, and here is why:
Our city competes with the private and public sectors to attract top performers, not only in Denver, but also from around the nation, for the jobs that we are trying to fill. It often takes weeks, if not months, of hard work to identify, recruit and persuade the best candidate to take a job in local government. In many instances, that person will be leaving an excellent job, where he or she has excelled, to join the mayor’s administration.
But if this ballot initiative passes, there is one “catch” to the process: she has to be confirmed by a group of 13 people who may have their own issues with the mayor and their own political agendas and ambitions. In other words, she really doesn’t have the job yet. And if the council doesn’t confirm her, she doesn’t have the job she thought she had. In fact, she may not have a job to go back to, either, since she likely told her now former employer that she was leaving to become a public servant. She is likely left wondering why she ever agreed to work for the city and telling anyone who will listen.
Once this happens to one nominee in Denver, imagine the “chilling” effect on those who follow. Word spreads quickly in a digital age. Why on earth would talented people leave good jobs to MAYBE be hired in Denver? To say nothing of adding a 30-day shot clock to fill a vacancy. When Denver identified leadership concerns in the police department in 2011, a national search produced new ideas and effective leadership from outside the ranks. Under this restriction, that would not have happened.
What will happen? These people won’t come to work for the mayor and the city. They will decide that it simply is too risky to navigate a political landscape they can’t predict or manage. And they would be right to fear personal attacks; one City Council member recently remarked that it was “her right” to “disparage” her colleagues.
I return to where I started: We have a solution in search of a problem. If Denver’s recent mayors, or the current mayor, had exhibited a pattern of nominating candidates not qualified to serve, perhaps this oversight could be justified. But that pattern doesn’t exist.
And this new layer of bureaucracy can’t be cloaked under the guise of “transparency.” Without a problem to solve, you’re left with an attempt to politicize the work of the people.
We have challenges ahead of us, and we should focus on the changes we need to make to ensure that Denver thrives and prospers in the years ahead. This initiative will do nothing to help us meet those challenges; instead, it will deprive us of the strong and diverse talent that we will need every step of the way.
Cole Finegan has served as city attorney for Denver and was chief of staff to former Mayor John Hickenlooper. He is currently managing partner for Hogan Lovells US LLP in Denver.