Denver City Council members increasingly exude hostility toward a longstanding system that authorizes an elected “strong mayor” — now Democratic Mayor Michael Hancock — to run the city’s day-to-day operations.
The council serves in a traditional legislative role, never hiring or firing key staff members or telling them how to do their jobs. The push for more council control of city government counters the direction of two other major Colorado cities — Colorado Springs and Pueblo — which each scrapped the more progressive council-manager system in favor of strong-mayor governments similar to the arrangement in Denver. By separating the executive and legislative branches, the strong-mayor system enhances checks and balances.
In the early 20th century, Denver moved from a mayor-council to a “commissioner” form of government in 1913. That lasted only three years before the city adopted the Speer Amendment in 1916 and initiated the strong-mayor system that has governed Denver during its transformation into one of the country’s most economically and culturally vigorous cities. It invests most executive authority in one person chosen by an at-large vote of the public.
The Denver council’s latest move toward emboldening legislative influence came Monday when Councilwoman Debbie Ortega proposed a city charter change. It would allow council members to contract with experts for professional services. A majority of the council indicated support for the move.
If newly elected Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca gets her way, Denver will abandon the strong-mayor system in favor of the council-manager system established by socialists and progressives of the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I would love to see that,” CdeBaca told The Gazette on Wednesday.
The farthest-left member of the council — her most negative detractors call her a “communist” — CdeBaca minces no words in her desire to change Denver’s charter to put the council in charge of basic operations. The mayor, she said, has too much power. She would support a ballot measure asking voters for a council-manager structure.
“I definitely have a goal of making as many big decisions as possible available for our citizenry to weigh in on,” she said. “We have an excessively strong form of mayoral government. Not only do we have the mayoral form of government, but we also are a city and a county. … When we look at our allegedly independent agencies within the city, they are run by boards that are appointed by the mayor. So there are very few people who are independent of the mayor including elected officials or elected bodies whose budgets are almost dictated by the mayor.”
Though the mayor proposes Denver’s budget, CdeBaca issued a news release before talking to The Gazette that proposes budget amendments to address “homelessness, skyrocketing costs of living, climate change, transportation and mass incarceration.” It includes solar panel subsidies for low-income homeowners, public lockers for the homeless, public needle receptacles for drug users, and more.
Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, is on pace to outgrow Denver proper in population by 2035. It has been ranked the most desirable city in America for two years in a row by a U.S. News & World Report survey. If given a chance to move anywhere in the United States, more of those surveyed would choose Colorado Springs over any other city — including Denver and the tropical paradise of Honolulu.
It is fair to declare the city a whopping success under the “strong mayor” leadership of former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. Denver is not far behind, typically trading places with the Springs for the top three to five positions on lists of “best” and “most desirable” places to live or do business in the United States. Neither city seems broken and in need of a political overhaul.
Rewind 10 years and the picture was considerably different for Colorado Springs. It was broken and in need of repair.
An out-of-town city manager, hired by the City Council into a council-manager system, ran the government of Colorado Springs at the behest of the city’s nine council members. The mayor’s role was mostly ceremonial, aside from serving as a member of the council with little more authority than his eight colleagues.
Colorado Springs in its final days as a council-manager city was a cautionary tale — for much of the world, oddly enough. It was a place for tourists, prospective residents and relocating businesses to avoid.
Big media, globally, shared a veritable boilerplate nut graph in scores of articles about the failure of Colorado Springs. The city was falling fast on “best of” rankings.
The anti-Springs pack narrative began with a Denver Post article on Jan. 30, 2010, that said: “More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.
“The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.
“Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.
“Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.
“City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31. … Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won’t pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.”
The Post, the country’s 10th most-circulated newspaper at the time, made Colorado Springs sound like hell on Earth.
The theme was catnip for media covering the recession. The New York Times, the BBC, NPR and multiple other media giants took swipes at Colorado Springs with cut-and-paste reiterations of articles decrying darkened streetlights and boarded-up public restrooms.
A Times reporter found a mother and son carrying a TV from the mobile home they shared in a southeast neighborhood. The mother was pawning the TV to buy a gun. She needed one, of course, because a dysfunctional city government darkened her street and endangered her life.
“To close a budget gap — the city’s voters, many of whom favor smaller government, turned down a property tax increase in November, and a taxpayer’s bill of rights makes it hard for city officials to raise taxes — Colorado Springs has stopped collecting trash in its parks, stopped watering many medians on its roads and reduced its police force,” The Times explained in an article Aug. 6, 2010.
Then-City Manager Penelope Culbreth-Graft ran the city’s day-to-day operations, under the city’s council-manager form of government. The system was similar to the governments of 46 of the county’s other 100 largest cities.
Culbreth-Graft wanted voters to triple the city’s property tax just as the country entered the great recession. She had moved to Colorado Springs to take the job in 2008 after failing to pay her residential property taxes in Southern California.
Not long after voters rejected the tax increase, Culbreth-Graft and the City Council embarked upon darkening streets, neglecting parks, and reducing law enforcement responses. To increase the drama, Culbreth-Graft deputized cab drivers as a hedge against the city’s inability to pay enough real cops. It made for even more press condemnation. It was municipal maladjustment on full display, and leaders of the council-manager City Hall appeared to like it.
The city’s make-the-public-feel-it tactics were known at the federal level as “The Washington Monument Strategy.” To get the public’s attention about budgetary constraints, federal bureaucrats would close monuments, national parks, and other attractions tourists travel to see.
The unusual nationwide and worldwide media interest began within weeks of the lights going out. It felt like someone inside the local government had launched an underground media campaign to trash Colorado Springs, which had never been so routinely featured in the national or international spotlight.
In March 2010, Culbreth-Graft announced her resignation. The following November, voters approved Initiative 300 and substantially changed the city’s form of governance. There would be no successor to Culbreth-Graft. Instead, voters would elect a full-time “strong mayor” the following spring to run an independent executive branch of government. The City Council would pass laws but no longer supervise the city’s top-ranking administrator. The Springs would go the way of Denver, a city enjoying a seemingly boundless and consistent history of economic growth.
Voters elected former private-sector CEO Steve Bach as the first mayor under the system. Before he took office, the city’s highest-ranking public relations employee, Sue Skiffington-Blumberg, came clean with a member of The Gazette’s editorial board. She detailed a covert public relations campaign, run out of the city manager’s office, designed to tell media about the streetlights, parks, trashcans, etc., in Colorado Springs. The former city manager, she insisted, ordered her to do it.
Incoming Mayor Bach saw the confession in a Gazette editorial and picked up the phone. He called Steve Cox, the city’s former fire chief, who was in place to serve as Bach’s chief of staff.
“I told him to terminate her immediately. She needed to be gone before I got there,” Bach told The Gazette last week.
The incoming mayor could not wait to take office and change a culture he considered the failed byproduct of a system that spread responsibility among nine legislators and a hired employee.
Bach embarked upon turning on streetlights, watering and maintaining parks, and undoing everything else he said the council-manager system imposed “to bring taxpayers to their knees.”
“It turns out we had money for all of these things,” Bach said. “It just wasn’t true that we had to turn the streetlights off.”
Bach said the deprivation of services, and the manager’s campaign to spread the news could only happen in a system that spread responsibility among so many people including someone unelected from out of town.
He describes taking charge of a city government in which multiple department heads and other ranking employees would not return his calls or a lot of calls from the public. A few exhibited open rebellion. He was just someone who had negotiated a successful campaign, Bach said of their attitude. They, by contrast, were seasoned professionals who knew what was best.
“In a council-management government, all the power lies with the city manager,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Colorado-based Independence Institute, a limited-government public policy organization.
“The City Council chooses a city manager. That person learns to control the council, and then the staff ends up running everything. The staff never has to answer to the public. Overall, a council-manager system is the worst of them all.”
Bach spent his first two years in office undoing that system so he could embark on rebuilding one that made a single person accountable to voters — a system like Denver’s.
“We had to change the culture from one that had a regulatory mindset,” Bach said. “The attitude was ‘we’re going to control the residents,’ rather than ‘we’re going to service the residents.’ We had city vehicles that said ‘Parking Enforcement.’ I said to change them. They should say ‘Parking Services.” I got pushback from the head of that department, so that person left. We moved to a customer-service focus because I had to answer directly to the voters. It was a new mindset. Some on the City Council said ‘you can’t do that.’ But I could, because I had the authority to do it. Unlike a city manager, I did not answer to nine people going in different directions.”
Bach embarked upon firing anyone who could not comport with the new customer-service mandate he demanded of all departments. For devotees of the establishment, the sky was falling.
Bach discovered the director of the city’s underperforming airport incurring massive expenses — in the form of elaborate art, exorbitantly high-priced paint and designer carpeting — passed along to airlines and passengers. He fired the airport administrator, hired a new one, slashed expenses and pitched lower airport overhead to attract more air service.
Bach disrupted a plan by the old administration to sell the city’s Memorial Hospital system on the cheap to a group of buyers organized by the hospital’s former CEO. Today, the University of Colorado Health runs the system under a long-term lease agreement.
He determined the council-manager system had deprived elderly and low-income residents of southeast neighborhoods the city bus services they needed. At the expense of ordinary residents, the council-manager had subsidized the luxurious Front Range Express service for high-wage professionals commuting to and from Denver. Bach ended FREX to fund more in-city service for residents living on average annual incomes of $15,000 to $18,000.
“These kinds of decisions would take forever under the old system if they were ever made at all,” Bach said.
Bach inherited street craters everywhere. Under the council-manager system, any pothole repair required a bureaucratic process and a work order specific to the hole.
“Our road crews would show up with a work order to fix a pothole,” Bach said. “They would see another pothole right next to it, but they could not fix it without a work order for each specific pothole. No one had the authority to change this, apparently, until we began the strong-mayor system.”
Bach authorized street workers to make reasonable decisions in the field while fixing potholes.
Former Colorado Springs City Manager Jim Mullen said Bach’s rule-by-executive-fiat exemplifies much of what goes wrong in a strong-mayor system.
“I don’t disagree with (former) Mayor Bach that he certainly had some capabilities to do some things without process,” Mullen said. “On the other hand, the danger is the fact he had the ability to do things without process.”
The “gunslinger” approach to pothole repair provides a perfect example.
“As a city manager, I could have done the same thing regarding potholes on any given day,” Mullen said. “We tried not to make decisions on emotions of the moment and things I saw in the street. We preferred some kind of priority system that said this street is more important than that one because it gets more traffic. Rather than ‘someone called me on the phone and complained about a pothole so I directed people to fix it.’ That’s a good example of the poor administration that can happen with strong-mayor governments.”
Bach asked city employees to find a way to improve pothole patrol. He says that invitation to solve a problem led to the city offering an app in which residents could photograph potholes and report them with smartphones.
Bach reformed City Hall with the grace of a runaway bulldozer, sometimes quipping he could use charm school. He destroyed much of the old to make way for the new. In doing so, he made enemies, lost friends and paved the way for his successor to rebuild.
Then-Colorado Attorney General John Suthers faced a term limit and wanted to run for mayor of Colorado Springs, the town in which he grew up. He had watched it expand from a small town of 40,000 to a large city of nearly 500,000.
In 2014, Suthers met with Bach and stated his plans to run for mayor. Bach decided to forgo seeking a second term, and Suthers won the 2015 election by a landslide.
“John has done an excellent job overall,” Bach said. “The streets are better to drive on. He has done a lot to resolve our massive drainage issues. I applaud him. We could not have someone of John’s caliber under the city manager system.”
Colorado Springs was not the first big city to scrap council-manager governance in the 21st century. San Diego voters initiated a six-year experimental pilot program in 2004 to test out the strong-mayor system, replacing a council-manager system almost identical to the old Colorado Springs arrangement. It would sunset in 2010 unless voters liked it enough to enact it permanently. The six-year experiment produced such popular results voters embraced it as a permanent system in 2010.
“Previously, the nine-member City Council, which included the ceremonial mayor as one single vote, appointed an unelected city manager who was the chief executive with all of the authority most associated with such a position,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, who ran the campaign for a strong-mayor system, in an article for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“Everyone was in charge, but no one was in charge. Everyone was accountable, but no one was accountable. Each City Council member and the ceremonial mayor were each one-ninth accountable for the day-to-day administration of the city. The buck stopped nowhere.”
Today, Kwiatkowski insists, the system works. It works much better than before.
“Through the leadership of two of our elected strong mayors, and one interim strong(ish) mayor, coupled with the all-important executive authority provided to them, San Diego has made great strides and improvements on multiple fronts,” he explains.
The council-manager system, which grants a City Council disproportional power, came about during the Progressive Era of left-wing social activism between the 1890s and 1920s. A major proponent of council-manager governance was Walter Lippmann, a 19th- and 20th-century journalist who belonged to the New York Socialist Party. He resigned as secretary to the first socialist mayor of Schenectady, N.Y., after declaring the mayor’s programs were not adequately socialistic.
The council-manager system grew out of a philosophy known as the “Efficiency Movement,” developed in detail by 19th and 20th-century mechanical engineer, steel industrialist and author Frederick Winslow Taylor. In his book “The Principles of Scientific Management,” Taylor explained the potential gain of applying principles of engineering to the management of human organizations.
In the book, he describes the difference between “stupid” workers and people smart enough to lead organizations.
“One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type,” he wrote. “The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character.”
Though less direct and unapologetically elitist, other progressives believed professionally executive employees with specific academic credentials were best suited to lead communities. They would work with more mechanical precision and less political motivation. In practice, as seen with the last city manager in Colorado Springs, these professionals are perceived so difficult to find they are typically hired from faraway places.
The International City Managers’ Association, today known only as the ICMA, emphasizes the need for specially qualified professionals to run community governments.
“Under council-manager government, qualifications and performance — and not skillful navigation of the political election process — are the criteria the elected body uses to select a professional manager. The professional manager, in turn, uses his or her education, experience, and training to select department heads and other key managers to oversee the efficient delivery of services,” the ICMA asserts in an article titled “COUNCIL-MANAGER or ‘STRONG MAYOR’: The Choice is Clear.”
The organization argues strong mayors may not hire adequately trained professionals to lead police departments, public works and finance agencies because they have the motivation to hire “based on the applicant’s political support rather than his or her professional qualifications.”
Mullen served as city manager of the Springs from October of 1996 to January of 2002. A graduate of the Springs-based Air Force Academy, Mullen obtained a graduate degree in public administration from the University of Colorado at Denver. He worked as a city manager over the course of 30 years in five jurisdictions, including the Colorado cities of Greenwood Village and Aurora.
Mullen believes Suthers has done a good job leading Colorado Springs but said things might not be too different had we kept the old council-manager system.
“When I was a city manager, we were equally successful,” Mullen said. “We had attracted the Intel and others from that sector. We widened I-25 through much of the city. The InterQuest development was getting underway. The economy was good. … The city manager system was successful in Colorado Springs for most of 90 years. We had some great managers, and some not so great. We had some council members who were great leaders and some who won’t be remembered for much.”
Mullen does not dismiss the strong-mayor system as inherently dysfunctional, conceding it works well in a lot of communities large and small. He worked for two years as the chief administrator for Joe Riley, who served as the strong mayor of Charleston, S.C., for 40 years.
“He was one of best local government leaders and administrators in the country,” Mullen said. “For that particular city in that particular time, it was the best-administered form of government.”
In general, Mullen argues, the council-manager system provides the most consistent guarantee of professional service to the public.
“You have a professionally trained person who has the educational background, usually some advanced degree, and considerable experience before ever managing a city the size of Colorado Springs,” Mullen said.
He said expert managers hired from out-of-town adapt to the city’s values and priorities through the direction of strong City Council members.
Under the leadership of strong-mayor governments, Colorado Springs and Denver are hard to view as anything less than successful by most meaningful cultural and economic measures.
The future of Pueblo will contribute to conclusions discerned in the debate about the merits of council-manager and strong-mayor systems. Seeing the success of Denver and Colorado Springs, voters in the economically struggling city elected their first strong mayor this year since scrapping that system in the early 1900s.
Though Mullen prefers the council-manager system, he suggests community leaders accept the sage advice of 17th and 18th-century poet Alexander Pope.
“For forms of Government let fools contest; Whate’er is best administered is best,” Pope wrote.
Wayne Laugesen is The Gazette’s editorial page editor.