Denver City Council wants more power — and some want to take it from the mayor

First-year elected officials, as well as the vets, keep pushing to give the relatively weak council more muscle.

Snow day at the City and County Building, Dec. 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Snow day at the City and County Building, Dec. 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photos

Denver City Council members have laid down new challenges to the powers of the mayor while increasing their own in a system steeply tilted toward the city’s top executive.

City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca urged her colleagues to support the idea of an independent city attorney during a committee meeting Monday while City Councilwoman Robin Kniech asked her colleagues to back an initiative that gives the legislative branch more budgeting power.

Right now the mayor appoints the city attorney, who is technically the head lawyer for the entire city government. CdeBaca and others want to decentralize the position, which they say lacks independence and protects the mayor when things get testy. For example, CdeBaca said, the office that defended Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration during his sexting scandal, as well as the recent Denver International Airport Great Hall contract debacle, was the same office advising City Council members when they wanted to investigate.

“Where is the real separation?” CdeBaca said.

Suggested changes to the status quo ran the spectrum from a joint nominating committee to a publicly elected post, though the latter did not gather any steam Monday.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Kniech proposed giving the legislative branch more power to change Denver’s budget after it becomes law.

Kniech wants more wiggle room for the Council if and when it sees an influx of cash — say, from an opioid settlement — or when money is left unspent and unearmarked, or in the event of a public emergency.

Currently, legislators can only change spending levels during the annual budget cycle in November, according to her research. She pointed to the city’s eviction defense program, which has helped hundreds of people stay in their homes. But the emergency measure likely would not have existed for another year if Kniech’s office did not happen to have extra money lying around in its budget.

“It’s all about solving problems. Problems do not always run on a budget cycle,” Kniech told Denverite.

Mayor Hancock’s office heard the ideas fleshed out for the first time on Monday. His team needs more time to analyze the ideas, which would require voters approving charter changes, before taking a position, a spokesperson said.

“We followed the discussion in charter committee today,” said Theresa Marchetta, Hancock’s head of communications. “We will need to see a proposal to understand the specifics and conduct our due diligence in assessing the potential impacts it will have on city operations.”

The proposals, which remain changeable, are the latest in a train of initiatives aimed at empowering the legislative branch, often at the expense of the executive branch.

In October, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca suggested the sheriff become an elected position instead of one appointed by the mayor and Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer floated a bill to require Council approval of the mayor’s cabinet members. Sawyer also proposed to take oil and gas extraction rights at Denver International Airport away from the mayor’s office and give them to voters.

This article was updated to correct an error in reporting. The eviction legal defense program, not the immigration legal defense fund, was the program pointed to as an example by Councilwoman Kniech.  

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