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Inside Denver’s City Council

As it welcomes seven new members, the City Council has a long to-do list. But do you really understand how this governing body works? A look at the people who shape life in the Mile High City.

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The Inauguration of Denver’s municipal officials on July 20, 2015, started with a few hiccups. Protesters decrying fracking shouted on the street outside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Ushers at one door ran out of brochures. The band picked up its tune too early and had to start over.

When Denver City Council president Christopher Herndon stepped to the microphone, though, the crowd had finally settled into the seats. Onstage, together for the first time in public, was Denver’s new City Council, a mix of six veterans and seven political rookies. Herndon set the tone, saying, “We are accountable to you, and our focus must always be on you.”

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If you’re wondering what, exactly, the City Council does, you’re not alone. Most of Denver didn’t even vote in May’s municipal election: Just fewer than 102,000 ballots were cast, which account for less than a quarter of Denver’s registered voters. That’s a shame, as much of the council was turning over because of term limits—members can only serve a maximum of 12 years—and the city’s 11 districts had been redrawn, changing the neighborhood borders that veteran councilors had presided over during previous years. Basically, our City Council was starting anew.

It may seem like a lot of esoteric political minutiae—until you consider that the City Council gig might be one of the last true, pure public-service jobs in Denver politics. A decision the council makes at Monday’s weekly meeting can be law by Tuesday. If you need a stop sign on your block or a bike lane by your kid’s school, the council can be your neighborhood’s caretaker, rabble-rouser, and cheerleader.

The 13-member board, which includes two at-large members who represent the entire city, passes ordinances (from speed limits to smoking bans) and holds rezoning hearings, but it also finds time to do all the little things we citizens tend to take for granted. “This is an operational job, not a policy job,” says District 5’s Mary Beth Susman. “You’ve got to plow the streets and sweep and pick up the garbage.”

The council occasionally wanders into policy debates (see: “Hot Topics,” page 98) and acts as a civic megaphone on issues shaping Denver’s social and economic priorities. Lately, that has included adding composting routes and renaming this year’s Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. At its meetings, the group might issue goodwill proclamations about eliminating childhood cancers (the council recently gave a young patient a Lego set and a standing ovation), stopping domestic violence, or the importance of immigration reform.

That doesn’t mean sitting on the council is simply a feel-good post. Despite the council’s inherently can-do nature, its power is stunted by a political system in which the mayor has the upper hand. Mayor Michael Hancock is in charge of appointing public officials, proposing the budget, and has veto power over the council’s decisions. Nine council votes can override a mayoral veto, but this scenario rarely occurs. And because all districts are not created equal, council members often disagree. What works for dense development in, say, downtown, won’t fly in south Denver’s Harvey Park, an enclave of midcentury homes. Some parts of the city have food deserts; others have too many big-box stores. And the ideal square footage for a single-family home varies from Montclair to Montbello.

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To get a sense of the new council’s makeup and objectives, we spent the members’ first two months tracking meetings, touring the districts, and finding out what each council member considers the city’s next big thing. Denverites, it’s time to meet your City Council.


What Can Your Council Member Do For You?

You want that pothole on your street filled. Or a protected bike lane on a busy street. Or for your neighbor to mow his damn lawn. The good news? You only need to make one call. “You can reach out to all the city agencies,” council president Christopher Herndon says. “Or you could just reach out to your council person.”


District 1

Rafael Espinoza, 43

District Snapshot: Rapid development here means that if you go on vacation, you might find that the historic Queen Anne on your street has been replaced by modern townhomes when you return. Some people (read: new property owners) like the changes; others don’t, such as the nearly 70 percent of voters who picked political newbie Espinoza over incumbent Susan Shepherd in May largely because of development concerns in the area.

Experience: Architect (most recently worked on affordable housing in Stapleton)

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To-Do List: Encourage development that’s sensitive to the area’s character

Sound Bite: “We had nearly a 30 percent turnout in an off-season when there was no [competitive] mayoral race. What’s going on in this district is a big deal, and it has widespread support. It’s not just the politicos. It’s not just the lobbyists. We got out the vote.”

Bragging Rights: Espinoza has
quickly earned a reputation for bluntness with quips like, “It’s the mayor’s world, we just live in it,” which rallied the support of many voters in his district. “It would be easy to just sort of check in and check out and agree to everything,” he says. “Where you are going to make change is by being reasonably disagreeable.”

Sore Spot: Despite his quotable rhetoric, Espinoza will have to play well with others to keep his district’s voice heard. So far, he’s often been hesitant on the dais, sometimes abstaining or delaying his vote until other members have decided an issue.


District 2

Kevin Flynn, 63

District Snapshot: The boundaries of District 2 look like a child’s doodle, thanks to a period of aggressive annexation by the city during the 1960s and early 1970s—followed by lawsuits undoing some of it. Today, the area’s stock of midcentury modern homes is attracting new buyers.

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Experience: Former Regional Transportation District public information project manager; Rocky Mountain News’ City Council reporter for nearly 27 years

To-Do List: Lower police response times; repave streets; look at creating historic districts

Sound Bite: “I used to sit at the press table every Monday night going, What are you bozos doing? I can do better than this. Here’s my chance to prove either that I’m wrong or that I’m right.”

Bragging Rights: When the Great Recession hit, the city cut services, including ceasing to mow public areas near Sanderson Gulch. Flynn wants the area to be better maintained. “We’re breaking our bargains with these neighborhoods,” he says.

Sore Spot: Flynn vowed to increase police presence in the district, where the quirky layout means cops sometimes drive down Santa Fe Drive into Littleton to get to the southwestern edges of District 2 more quickly. The council asked the mayor to add money for even more police recruits than were budgeted; Hancock has set up a fund for possible recruits, pending a departmental review.

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District 3

Paul D. López, 37

District Snapshot: Packed with mom-and-pop shops like Little Saigon’s pho restaurants and the Lookin’ Good Restaurant & Lounge, this area of Denver has often been overlooked. That’s changing, what with the 2014 opening of the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez library, two new parks, and the recent paving of the area’s alleys for the first time.

Experience: Eight years on the council
(re-elected in 2015); former labor and
community organizer; Denver native

To-Do List: Increase financial literacy for homeowners and small-business owners (Sun Valley is the state’s poorest neighborhood); improve connectivity with the rest of the city via Colfax Avenue; rev up development along Morrison Road

Sound Bite: “We want to see development that complements and celebrates the community and that doesn’t replace it. You don’t want to see great Mexican food be replaced by mediocre $9 tacos.”

Bragging Rights: López has helped deny liquor licenses in the district by packing public hearings with residents who voice their opposition to these licenses. At least 11 requests have been denied, and one spot was filled instead with a small grocery store that accepts food stamps.

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Sore Spot: Access to health care is a concern, especially since residents of ZIP code 80219 have a life expectancy 12 years shorter than that of people who live on the east side of the South Platte River, says López. (Denver Health will open a community clinic nearby in 2016.)


District 4 

Kendra Black, 51

District Snapshot: Carved up by I-25, I-225, Colorado Boulevard, and Hampden Avenue, this south Denver district hides apartment complexes and a trove of homes built between the 1950s and 1970s with big backyards and finished basements—but it lacks an urban community feel. “One of the things we have to do here is build community,” Black says. “A [car-dependent] part of town doesn’t have those gathering spots.”

Experience: Historian; former co-chair of Denver Public Schools Bond Oversight Committee; Denver native

To-Do List: Create community-oriented development; improve parks; work on senior-specific issues

Bragging Rights: Black sent out 15,000 questionnaires about big-picture goals—such as creating Belmar-esque destinations or sprucing up the High Line Canal recreational path—so area residents could start thinking about long-term projects.

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Sore Spot: Black admits that her district is cut off by “psychological boundaries” such as I-225. “In this part of town, it’s easier to get on the highway and drive to the Park Meadows mall,” Black says, which pulls money out of Denver.


District 5

Mary Beth Susman, 68

District Snapshot: This upper-middle-class area is enjoying a period of relative calm: Lowry is entrenched, and homes in Mayfair and Hilltop continue to appreciate. The biggest concern may be how to get from these urban-suburban neighborhoods to the rest of the metro area because car traffic—particularly along Colorado Boulevard—continues to get worse.

Experience: Four years on the council (re-elected in 2015); former vice president of Colorado Community College System; former member of the Denver Planning Board and Lowry Economic Adjustment Committee chair

To-Do List: Ease traffic woes; improve intracity transit; spruce up Colfax Avenue

Sound Bite: “A single-family detached home produces nine [car] trips a day. What if we could get it down to four? You could still have your car; you just wouldn’t take
it everywhere.”

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Bragging Rights: A vacant building at Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard was demolished this summer, part of a multiyear process to redevelop this former hospital zone. Residents balked at an early proposal for a Wal-Mart in the space, and Susman helped find an alternative: a development with retail, underground parking, and a dense concentration of residential units.

Sore Spot: Susman hoped to bring Bridj—a pop-up van transit system—to Denver to improve the “last mile, first mile” issue (that buses or light-rail trains don’t run all the way into certain neighborhoods). Susman is mulling the idea of creating a Denver Transit Authority that would address transit issues like these within the city.


District 6

Paul Kashmann, 68

District Snapshot: This newly drawn district—the University of Denver area was added to Washington Park and Virginia Village—is a model for Denver development thanks to its established neighborhoods with small but vibrant retail centers. If anything, the district might be a little too bucolic, which is why stories about Wash Park being overrun by volleyball-playing, beer-drinking millennials make headlines. (Short story: New rules limit the areas where group sports are played in the park.)

Experience: Washington Park Profile publisher for more than 30 years

To-Do List: Restore faith in government; “take care of the planet” on a local level by implementing things such as composting and walkable neighborhood programs; increase and improve the police force

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Bragging Rights: During his campaign, Kashmann realized how many young families lived in the district. That’s part of the reason he talks about “kidways”—child-friendly routes to and from schools, recreation centers, or parks—during public transit conversations.

Sore Spot: Kashmann thinks there are spots for increased development and density in his district. For example, some businesses in Bonnie Brae are zoned to have storefronts on the first floor and residences above, which could significantly raise the height of the streetscape. Don’t worry: Kashmann isn’t starting up a bulldozer; he’s looking at areas where redevelopment is already occurring.


District 7

 

Jolon Clark, 35

District Snapshot: Split by the South Platte River and I-25, District 7 has historic enclaves to the east and working-class neighborhoods to the west, with few arteries bridging the gap. That’s something Clark hopes to fix.

Experience: Former Greenway Foundation associate director; Denver native

To-Do List: Increase intradistrict connectivity; create more affordable housing; improve Denver’s parks

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Sound Bite: “Denver has these highly educated, highly active, outdoor-motivated people who are moving constantly. And yet, when you look at the kids who grow up here, we are middle of the pack when it comes to obesity, and we fund K–12 and higher education among the very bottom of the states. We’re attracting people here, but what about the kids growing up here?”

Bragging Rights: Clark has spent his professional career navigating city services to improve the South Platte River, experience that should serve him well on the council. This spring, that work bore fruit with the opening of Johnson Habitat Park, a one-time landfill that is now being used for urban summer camps.

Sore Spot: District 7 is divided, not just by the South Platte River, but linguistically as well. (Many of its west-side residents live in Spanish-speaking households.) As one of his first moves in office, Clark hired a bilingual clerk to better serve the district.


District 8

 

Council President Christopher Herndon, 38

District Snapshot: With a mix of historic homes and new-build communities, District 8 is in flux: House prices are soaring in North and South Park Hill, while gentrification is transforming Northeast Park Hill. East Colfax Avenue continues to be, well, the ’Fax. And Stapleton is booming, especially north of I-70.

Experience: Four years on the council (re-elected in 2015, when the council also elected him president for a second time); United States Military Academy at West Point graduate; deployments to Iraq and Kosovo during nearly seven years with the U.S. Army; former operations manager with United Airlines

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To-Do List: Address constituents’ public-safety concerns; make infrastructure improvements, like adding more sidewalks and bike lanes; create a neighborhood plan for Colfax Avenue between Colorado Boulevard and Yosemite Street

Sound Bite: “As a veteran, I’m a firm believer in structure. I always want to be respectful of people’s time because it’s the one thing you can never get back…. One of the greatest compliments I get is when people say, ‘You run a great meeting.’?”

Bragging Rights: Herndon dedicates two-plus days in-district each week. That said, the Army vet is a sucker for order and spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the council work as a team. This year, he implemented an extended “Council Academy,” a one-week training program for new members, and paired the rookies with council veterans as mentors.

Sore Spot: Traffic, particularly around bottlenecked Quebec Street—which funnels from many lanes to two within the district—will only intensify once work begins on I-70’s expansion. Herndon will be tasked with soothing neighborhood tensions as the area’s commutes worsen.


District 9

 

Albus Brooks, 36

District Snapshot: With what might be the densest collection of construction cranes in Denver, this district has (or will have) major projects happening in just about every corner, including the proposed I-70 expansion, the RiNo renaissance, and the revitalization of the historic Five Points and Globeville neighborhoods.

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Experience: Four years on the council (re-elected in 2015); former defensive back at the University of Colorado Boulder; worked on Governor John Hickenlooper’s election team

To-Do List: Increase affordable housing; address mobility and transportation issues between neighborhoods; Arapahoe Square redevelopment

Sound Bite: “I have a community that keeps me accountable. I live in an incredible district where the grasstop folks”—homeowners and wealthier residents—“don’t let me get too consumed with the day-to-day issues, and the grassroots people don’t let me disconnect with them.”

Bragging Rights: Last month, voters approved a tax increase that will help fund the re-envisioned National Western Complex and surrounding neighborhoods.

Sore Spot: The plans to widen I-70 still spark controversy, lack funding, and are sure to disgruntle some district residents for many years.

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District 10

Wayne New, 67

District Snapshot: New’s area is home to some of Denver’s oldest and toniest neighborhoods. With that, though, comes a host of problems, such as sidewalks cracked by ancient tree roots, streets overwhelmed by resident parking, and businesses worried about homeless encampments. New, a political novice, won his council seat by fewer than 350 votes.

Experience: Former pediatrichospital administrator; former president of the Cherry Creek North Neighborhood Association

To-Do List: Increase Denver’s capital fund; address sidewalk problems; make improvements on Colfax Avenue

Sound Bite: “I’m adjusting to the pacing. Government is so much slower than business. What seems like a very clear alternative may require several committee meetings to figure it out.”

Bragging Rights: New wants the city to consider a development impact fee, a one-time cost for new construction that helps fund area projects. The plan ensures cranes in the sky mean money for the neighborhood to tackle everything from street repairs to new traffic lights. A similar program in Portland, Oregon, produces $60 million per year. New has introduced the concept to the mayor.

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Sore Spot: New’s office is tasked with keeping residents and business owners assured that the city’s solutions for homelessness are working while helping the social services locations in the district.


District 11

Stacie Gilmore, 45

District Snapshot: Many people’s first impression of Denver is the airport, which makes District 11 the city’s front door. When the commuter rail connects to DIA next year, Gilmore’s district will become an even more prominent shaper of the city’s personality.

Experience: Founder of Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK); Colorado native

To-Do List: Address infrastructure needs in the district (building out streets and connecting trails); increase food access; develop workforce for in-demand jobs such as welding and other construction trades

Bragging Rights: If filling potholes and fixing fences is what a council member does, Gilmore learns quickly: Her office already has a 92 percent close rate for constituents’ issues. She’s also forming a community cabinet and a next-generation cabinet composed of young people hoping to get into public service.

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Sore Spot: After the election, Gilmore stopped by the city’s Board of Ethics because her husband, Scott, is Denver’s deputy director of parks and recreation and because ELK receives city grants. The ethics board said Gilmore might have to abstain on votes relating to both (something that was not an issue during the first two months of her tenure).


Council at-Large

Robin Kniech, 40

Experience: Four years on the council (re-elected in 2015); public policy attorney; former member of the Denver Union Station Project Authority

To-Do List: Build affordable housing; increase routes for the composting program (the mayor recently approved additional funds for this); connect Denver residents with construction and manufacturing jobs

Sound Bite: “You can’t really help the people you care about if you don’t understand how the city works, how the resources are allocated, and how the projects get done.”

Bragging Rights: Since her first day in office in 2011, Kniech has tackled Denver’s affordable housing market, including passing changes to Denver’s inclusionary housing ordinance (a rule that, among other things, requires developers to build a certain amount of low-income housing per project or pay a waiver fee to opt out). The ordinance was criticized by some for not going far enough to ensure affordable housing in Denver; Kniech urged patience. On the first day of her second term, Hancock announced that the city would create an annual $15 million funding source for affordable housing and lauded her and Brooks for their work on the concept.

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Sore Spot: Kniech says that her worst day on the job was when the council passed the camping ordinance, which limited overnight sleeping in public areas, in 2012. “It was a failure of the city to address the root causes of an issue,” says Kniech, who opposed the measure. “It was the least compassionate thing that I’ve ever had the reluctant role of being a part of.” Kniech won’t work to undo the ordinance; instead, she’ll try to address those root causes (see “Bragging Rights” above).


Deborah Ortega, 60

Experience: 20 years on the council (Ortega served for 16 years in a district before term limits were instituted in 2003; she rejoined as an at-large member in 2011 and was re-elected in 2015); former executive director of the Denver Commission to End Homelessness

To-Do List: Increase affordable housing; ensure safe transport of hazardous materials via train through Denver; foster creative industries

Sound Bite: “The issue of affordable housing is huge. I think everyone knows somebody who can’t afford to live in this city. Even though there are a lot of apartments being built, they are at market rate.”

Bragging Rights: Ortega has a reputation for tackling—and sticking with—big ideas, from the redevelopment of LoDo to a
plastic-bag fee. Her latest focus: finding ways to use hydrogen fuel in Colorado.

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Sore Spot: After seeing a train used for carrying crude oil parked on rail lines near downtown for several days, Ortega realized how an explosion or leak—caused by an
accident or even an act of terrorism—could cripple Denver, destroy infrastructure (think: I-25 implosion), and put residents who live near the tracks in danger. She’s questioned new developments along railways by asking for more emergency preparedness models and, with the council, requested additional money in the city’s budget to tackle the issue. Hancock denied the request.

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