Twelve candidates for Denver mayor recalled summers spent in neighborhood parks, discussed ways to pay for a parks system that hasn’t kept pace with the city’s growth, and wrangled over whether gigantic commercial ventures should shut residents out of their own public spaces at a forum on Wednesday night at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
It was the first time nearly all the announced candidates for Denver mayor have gathered before voters (one candidate who has filed paperwork with the city didn’t show up). An audience of more than 300 over-flowed Mitchell Hall at the Botanic Gardens to hear the mayoral hopefuls answer questions about the city’s parks at the forum, sponsored by The Parks People organization.
The night’s boldest proposal came from candidate Eric Zinn, who said Denver is too fat and that getting city residents to lose 1 million pounds during his first 180 days in office will go a long way toward solving problems with the parks.
“How can Denver’s parks and rec system justify its relevancy for a city population that is growing more obese, out of shape, and subject to heart disease?” He said a massive weight-loss program is the answer. “The result,” he added, “will be a city that’s healthy, a city that’s proud, and a city that’s willing and enthusiastically able to support its parks.”
Other candidates talked about striking a balance between managing parks more efficiently and finding more resources, whether it’s from commercial ventures, business sponsorships or additional taxes.
Candidates can begin circulating petitions next week for a place on the May 3 ballot. The same day he was inaugurated as governor, former Mayor John Hickenlooper handed over the reins to Deputy Mayor Bill Vidal, who will run things until after the likely June 7 run-off election. Three members of City Council, a former state senator, a seasoned manager of city programs and a handful of others are all seeking the job.
“We’ve got so many candidates up here, it’s going to be like speed dating,” said City Councilman Michael Hancock, and he was right.
The dozen candidates had between 30 seconds and two minutes each to respond to a handful of questions posed by 9News political reporter Adam Schrager, including some submitted by the audience.
Calling the parks system “the heartbeat of Denver,” Hancock said having access to the city’s parks and recreation opportunities while growing up in Denver made the difference for him. “A poor kid from northeast Denver stands before you with a real chance of being mayor because of parks and rec,” he said.
“The biggest challenge facing the parks and recreation system is how to do more with less,” said City Councilman Doug Linkhart, who proposed organizing volunteers to staff recreation centers and said he was opposed to shutting down rec centers in neighborhoods where residents need them most.
He also decried a recently adopted city policy establishing fees for commercial ventures in parks. “Parks belong to people, they need to be open to all people,” he said.
James Mejia, who ran the Parks and Recreation Department under Mayor Wellington Webb, said he would “respect the public conversation we had” on allowing commercial operations to charge fees for events in city parks, but added that the controversy is “only a symptom” of the city’s failure to keep up with demand.
“We’re trying to squeeze in too many new uses for neighborhood parks,” he said. “We need more neighborhood parks for more uses.”
Denver has lagged when it comes to providing parks for residents, Mejia said. “Where Denver used to be ranked in the top 10 parks per capita, park land per capita, we’ve fallen out of almost every category,” he said, noting that cities such as Milwaukee and Nashville have twice as much park land for each resident. “We’ve got a lot of work to do here, folks,” he added.
“The biggest problem is that as our population grows, our parks have not grown. It’s time to put aside a separate revenue fund for parks and recreation and make sure this system grows along with our population,” Mejia said.
Most of the other candidates sounded open to exploring a dedicated funding source for parks but some warned against trying to solve the wrong problem.
“Sure, of course,” former state Sen. Chris Romer said in response to a question from the audience about establishing a “sustained revenue source” for parks. “But I’m also looking for a sustained way to pay for our schools, a sustained way to pay for our police force, a sustained way to stay safe. We all want to have this, we can do this, but we need to look at efficiencies first. We need to be careful about how we queue this conversation,” he said, adding that, “there are more important issues, like creating jobs, right now.
City Councilwoman Carol Boigon sounded a similar note. “This is a time when we’re struggling with budgets in every area,” she said. “For me, the most important thing for us now is to do the kind of economic development and jobs creation that grows our budget back to where it was, evaluate where we are, get efficiencies through a variety of sources, but, most importantly, grow the budget.”
Hancock said the larger budget problems need to be solved first. He praised Vidal for initiating a task force to examine the budget. “It will help us to stop kicking the can down the street,” he said. “The reality is, it’s time to align our budget structure with the economic realities of today. We also must remember that the burden on every citizen is not the same, so we have to be very careful.”
Linkhart said the city should consider an open-space tax similar to ones levied by all the counties surrounding Denver.
Theresa Spahn said finding efficiencies would be the first thing she would do but added that asking Denver voters for more revenue could be the best long-term solution. “We have to trust our citizens, our voters, to bring those type of issues to them,” she said.
Paul Fiorino suggested tapping philanthropists to pay for park maintenance and said the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District multi-county taxing authority could also serve as a model for funding Denver parks.
Danny Lopez — who boasted that he was the only one on stage to have won 10,000 votes in a mayor’s race, when he lost to Hickenlooper four years ago — and Dwight Henson agreed that promoting city ball fields and perhaps luring major softball tournaments to Denver would be one way to address funding difficulties.
Thomas Andrew Wolf said Denver residents have been generous to professional sports franchises and suggested that requiring teams to return income to pay for parks seemed like “an obvious trade.”
Efficiencies are the answer, said Kenneth Simpson, who got in a jab at parks department policies that allow employees to take time off to get college degrees.
Zinn reiterated his position that slimming down the city will solve the problem. “If people are healthy and committed, they will come up with a sustained source of revenue,” he said.
Candidates began circulating petitions on Jan. 31 and must turn them in by March 9. The election will be conducted entirely by mail, and ballots go out April 15. There will also be voting centers set up around the city in late April. If no candidate gets a clear majority in the May 3 election, there will be a run-off between the top two finishers on June 7. Mail ballots for that election go out May 20.
In addition to mayor, all of Denver’s city council seats and the citywide offices of auditor and clerk and record are up for election in May. So far, incumbent Auditor Dennis Gallagher is the only announced candidate for that office. Jacob Werther is the only announced candidate for clerk and recorder. (Incumbent Clerk and Recorder Stephanie Y. O’Malley said this week she won’t seek reelection.) At least 10 candidates plan to seek the two at-large seats Boigon and Linkhart are vacating.
Beginning Feb. 7, candidates must file fundraising reports for the previous month. Totals for 2010 fundraising are due Jan. 31, but most of the major candidates announced what they’d raised earlier this month. Hancock took in $265,000 — including about $45,000 transferred from his City Council campaign coffers — followed by $226,000 raised by Romer, $208,500 reported by Mejia and $102,000 posted by Linkhart. Boigon’s campaign hadn’t disclosed its fundraising totals by late this week.