Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to correct inaccuracies in the first version that ran.
On the morning of Friday, Nov. 8, former Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who writes a monthly opinion column for The Denver Post, braved a chilly, early morning start to address the Downtown Democratic Forum. A major player in city affairs for more than three decades, serving in the Peña administration and as an at-large City Council member from 1995-2003, Barnes-Gelt offered her assessment of Mayor Michael Hancock’s performance at the halfway mark of his first term.
She observed that the 2011 mayoral campaign was largely about personality, not policy or civic vision. Hancock proved a wholly likeable, extroverted candidate who served up sound bite priorities during the mayoral debates. Chris Romer’s reliance on negative mailings and attack ads dominated the media during the run-off election. The result was a victory of personality and Hancock’s superior field operation.
Barnes-Gelt believes the key to successful mayoral leadership is a balance of engagement by neighborhoods, and community interests (environmental, preservation, development, human rights and business) with political leaders. It is this three-legged stool or tripod that stabilizes and strengthens a community.
In her view Hancock has difficulty confronting tough conflicts directly, including the homeless explosion and its impacts on neighborhoods adjacent to the central business district, gang violence as well as park policy and preservation. He allows staff or task forces to address these challenges. She also complained that there are no urbanist or planning experts serving on the Mayor’s personal staff or in his Cabinet. Absent clear policy direction from the Mayor, city departments are often freelancing their own priorities.
Denver residents are experiencing a government of reaction rather than one of conscious action according to the former Council member. Nonetheless, there are plenty of problems facing the city: expanding gang activity, increasingly violent crime and the conversion of the 16th Street Mall into a public toilet, to name a few. At the same time we have been instituting more and higher fees for park use, the administration has been giving away open space for non-recreational uses.
Although she supported hiring an outsider to restructure the Police Department, Barnes-Gelt indicated Robert White was probably the wrong choice for Denver’s Chief. She feels he brought with him a Southern viewpoint towards law enforcement that has played out as both sexist and tone deaf. “What was the Chief doing speaking at the dedication of the new Scientology center?” she asked.
The administrations much touted LEAN program, designed to slow the growth of Denver’s operating budget and streamline bureaucracy has barely produced $10 million in savings out of a billion dollar budget. Meanwhile the Mayor continues raising taxes and adding fees without improving services. Because of the mechanics of the Gallagher amendment, Denver’s commercial properties were already paying taxes at four times the rate of residential property owners. Hancock’s championing of questions 2A and 2B last year only aggravates this inequity.
Barnes-Gelt closed by speculating on whether there would be a viable opponent to the Mayor come 2015. Denver’s mayoral elections have rarely turned on money alone she pointed out. It’s helpful but rarely determinative, as Peña and Webb both demonstrated. Without a strong ground game rooted in Denver neighborhoods, however, it seems unlikely there would be a change.
Elizabeth “Buzzy” Gibson is a former lobbyist, Colorado Senate staffer and long time Denver Democrat.