Inasmuch as the state legislature seems increasingly intent on ceding to local governments whatever authority it has not already surrendered to the federal government, Denver’s civic election next week assumes a bit of added gravitas. Here, then, is an admittedly inexhaustive look at what Denver ought to be looking for in a mayor and council.
Prioritization of law and order and public safety is the first order of business for government at any level and is what we have government for in the first place. This is a large issue which buttons tight around a number of concerns, but the first must be support for local police. Part of this certainly includes ensuring that a) local cops have the tools they need to do their jobs safely and effectively, and b) that there are sufficient numbers of them to handle the task of policing a city like Denver. Growth has its perks, but it has an underbelly as well, and the police cannot be expected to maintain order and keep the streets safe if their numbers do not adjust accordingly with the growth of the city’s population.
But even more importantly, moral support for local law enforcement requires the loyalty and backing of the government they serve. Yes, we must find and punish the wayward officers who go wrong, and as in any group of mortal humans there will be a few who do so; but the corollary to that is the recognition that the aberrations do not define the whole. Most officers out there doing our bidding — yes, our bidding as a society, through the elected civil government — deal with the worst the city has to offer on a daily basis honorably and professionally. It is a dangerous, unpredictable, difficult, and usually messy job, but absolutely necessary if we are to live in peace with one another. At the very least, their civil leaders ought not be in the business of making their job more dangerous and difficult.
Beyond that critical function, the most admirable trait we ought to perhaps seek in elected city officials is self-restraint and a recognition of natural limitations. A proactive approach to policing is necessary, but even in that realm an economy of authority is prudent. Public safety encompasses a multitude of issues, and the provenance of many of the root causes of the more critical social ills — crime, drug abuse, poverty, mental health problems, and so forth — reside well beyond the purview of city government to solve in any meaningful way. A great deal of well-intentioned mischief has been brought upon the urban social landscape over the last half-century or so when local governments forget that simple maxim and attempt to micromanage utopia into existence.
The perennial complaint of the lack of affordable housing is one example. The reflexive answer is for the city to engage in construction projects to build low-income housing or subsidize its construction. But this ignores the fact that most of the catalysts for the increase in housing costs are created by the government itself. Excessive land use restrictions, zoning requirements, height limitations, an official fetish for open space, and other bureaucratic regulations each add dollars onto whatever housing is left available to build.
The problems of traffic congestion and parking are, likewise, mostly self-inflicted injuries. The fervor with which local officials have pursued the imposition of bike and bus lanes along some of the busiest roadways in the city is directly responsible for much of the traffic gridlock commuters endure every day, and the insanity of actively reducing available parking downtown — going as far as to encourage the construction of new hotels and apartment buildings with purposely insufficient parking spaces — is sheer madness.
So what Denver ought to be looking for in its mayor and City Council is nothing less than self-discipline — the ability to resist, for instance, the urge to assert authority over immigration law by establishing the city as a “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants; or to quiet the impulse to showcase the latest trendy but economically foolhardy “green” initiative.
Yes, it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, especially in the midst of a campaign where “boldness,” “action” and “vision” are mantles being competed over; and it’s unavoidably true that certain projects — Union Station and DIA, for example — benefit from prudent application of city resources.
Still, someone ought to be raising a hand asking,“Should we be doing this?” How wonderful if that question were asked by someone with fiduciary control over the taxpayers’ money.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.