What does Denver’s mayor do and how much power does the position have?

It’s not infinite. But it’s close as far as governing a city goes.
13 min. read
Former Governor John Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock try to fix a microphone for former Mayor Wellington Webb during a rally for Hancock’s reelection campaign, May 14, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver's heading into a ridiculously competitive election with more than 20 candidates signed up to become boss of the Mile High City. As is the case with every election, there may be some confusion about what the job actually is and how much power it has -- even for the people running.

So how powerful is Denver's mayor? Let's just say Denver isn't called a "strong-mayor city" for nothin'.

Many in the state say the mayor has more power and responsibility than the governor himself. (Sorry, Jared Polis). But a mayor isn't an emperor. There are some checks and balances.

And there are few things in the city the position isn't actually responsible for at all -- say, Denver Public Schools (that's the school board), the lack of rent control (look to the reps and senators at the statehouse for that), or bad bosses (unless you're one of the thousands working for the mayor).

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For starters, who can be mayor?

The job of the mayor is spelled out in the City Charter, the rules of the city.

There's not much you need to do to be qualified to run -- including knowing the basic rules of the city or what the office actually does. To qualify, a person has to be a U.S. citizen. You have to have lived in the city at least two years before the election and through your time in office. You have to be at least 30 years old, and being mayor is your sole job.

Lisa Calderón (left to right), Aurelio Martinez, Ean Tafoya and Thomas Wolf sit in on a mayoral candidate forum at the former Park Hill Golf Course. Nov. 16, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

A mayor is elected to serve a four-year term and however long it takes to get a new person in the job.

Other than that, you can be a ballet dancer, a DJ, a felon or a boxer (along with many other things) -- as the entrants to the 2023 race prove.

Here's what you do as mayor.

You're the chief executive of the city, the boss, the big cheese of a home-rule city. That means you're in charge of all administrative and executive functions spelled out in both the Colorado Constitution and the city charter. That's a type of municipal structure that merges both city and county authorities and makes Denver one judicial district.

Your job is to enforce all laws and ordinances, but you don't get to make them. That's what the 13-member City Council does.

Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas speaks during the Far East Center's second Mid-Autumn Festival celebration. Westwood, Sept. 10, 2022.

But, because you're above the Chief of Police, the Sheriff and the head of the Department of Public Safety, you're the top dog when it comes to municipal law enforcement. One exception: While you might work closely with Regional Transportation District cops, you're not in charge of them. RTD is region-wide and works with all the municipal police departments covered by the system.

A mayor can decide to waive a fine for a crime. But if you do, you have to tell City Councilmembers. And that's just the beginning of your relationship with them.

You're going to be spending a lot of time with City Council members, and they can make or break your platform.

You also have to report about the state of the City and County of Denver to Council and can make recommendations about laws they can pass that might make this place better.

You can veto anything City Council passes, but if at least nine of the 13 members of City Council vote to override your veto, you've been checked.

Vetoing is a rare move, though. In 12 years, Mayor Michael Hancock has done it twice: One time was to shut down a flavored tobacco ban. The other time was to block an attempt to legalize owning pit bulls. Council failed to overturn both vetoes, but voters ultimately decided to allow pit bulls.

Denver City Council members Candi CdeBaca (left to right), Jamie Torres and Stacie Gilmore attend a committee meeting in the body's main chambers at the City and County Building. March 16, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

City Council members have to work closely with you if they want to get something done. Trying to go up against you on measures you promise to veto might be seen as a showboating or performance art. That is, unless a vast majority of Council members support the policy in question and are willing to take on the mayor.

Lucky for you, you've got way more power than City Council.

Hope you like contracts. That's a big part of the job.

Contracts? Sounds boring, right? If you answered yes, mayor isn't the job for you.

The mayor's in charge of making sure contracts are followed to the letter. Your department heads have to report any violations to your office, and it's your job to make sure the city is in compliance.

When it comes to entering into new contracts or financial relationships, it's your job to sign off on them. Some of those duties can be delegated to the Manager of Finance. The signature can be made with a stamp.

Here's the rub: "All legal process against the City and County shall be served upon the Mayor or acting Mayor," according to the charter. If things go sideways with the city and somebody takes Denver to court, it's your name on the defendant's line of the lawsuit. You have the not-so-enviable power to be punished. Congrats.

As mayor, you get a lot of hire-fire power -- and when the people you hire screw up, you take the heat.

Cops use excessive force? That's on you. A pothole doesn't get fixed? That's your problem. Streets flooding into basements? You guessed it: it's your fault.

A poorly shoveled blizzard can kill a mayor's chance of reelection. Just ask former Mayor Bill McNichols, whose 1983 bid for office was wrecked by a 1982 snowstorm.

Pandemics? Global recessions? Asteroids? Mayors likely get blamed for those, too.

Mayor Michael Hancock speaks at press conference on public safety at the Colorado Convention Center. Nov. 10, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

You'll be doing a lot of hiring and firing Here's the full list of offices whose heads you'll nominate because the City Charter says you must:

  • Department of Parks and Recreation
  • Department of Community Planning and Development
  • Department of Transportation & Infrastructure
  • Department of Finance
  • Denver Human Services
  • General Services
  • Denver International Airport
  • Department of Public Health and Environment
  • City Attorney
  • Department of Public Safety
  • Department of Excise and Licenses
  • Denver Fire Department
  • Denver Police Department
  • Denver Sheriff Department

Once they're nominated, City Council has 30 days to approve or reject them. If they don't take action, your nominee is a shoo-in. If a majority of City Council members vote against your pick, you have more work to do.

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock during the 2022 State of the City address.
Evan Semón Photography / courtesy of the Office of the Mayor.

Then there are all the heads of agencies that aren't in the city charter. Those include:

  • Technology Services
  • Department of Housing Stability
  • Office of the National Western Center
  • Office of Children's Affairs
  • Denver Sheriff Department
  • Denver Economic Development & Opportunity
  • Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security
  • Agency of Human Rights and Community Partnerships
  • Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency
  • Mayor's Office of Social Equity and Innovation
  • Denver Arts & Venues

    And your hiring doesn't stop there.

    The Denver mayor appoints over 700 positions on more than 130 boards and commissions, that oversee everything from Denver Water to business improvement districts to the Zoo.

    Here's the full list. Be prepared to scroll! And heads up: The ones with a * also need City Council approval:

    • 14th Street - General Improvement District*
    • 15th Street Local Maintenance District
    • 20th Street Local Maintenance District
    • 22nd Street and Park Avenue West Local Maintenance District
    • 32nd and Lowell Local Maintenance District
    • 44th and Eliot Pedestrian Mall - Maintenance District
    • Adjustment for Zoning, Board of
    • African American Commission, Denver*
    • American Indian Commission, Denver*
    • Appeals, Board of
    • Asian American Pacific Islander Commission, Denver*
    • Audit Committee
    • Bicycling Advisory Committee
    • Bluebird - Business Improvement District*
    • Botanic Gardens Board of Trustees
    • Boundary Control Commission
    • Broadway 'A' Local Maintenance District
    • Broadway 'B' Local Maintenance District
    • Phase II Broadway Local Maintenance District
    • Broadway Viaduct Pedestrian Mall - Maintenance District
    • Cableland Home Foundation Board of Directors*
    • Career Service Board*
    • Caring for Denver
    • Charitable Campaign, Denver Employees
    • Cherry Creek North - Business Improvement District*
    • Cherry Creek North Design Advisory Board
    • Citizen Oversight Board*
    • Civil Service Commission*
    • Colfax Board of Directors - Business Improvement District*
    • Colfax-Mayfair - Business Improvement District*
    • College Success Corporation, Denver
    • Commission for People with Disabilities, Denver*
    • Commission on Aging, Denver*
    • Commission on Cultural Affairs, Denver*
    • Community Corrections Board*
    • Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) Advisory Committee
    • Consolidated Larimer Street Local Maintenance District
    • Consolidated Morrison Road Local Maintenance District
    • Convention Center Hotel Authority, Denver*
    • Crime Prevention and Control Commission*
    • Deferred Compensation Plan Committee
    • Delgany Street Local Maintenance District
    • Downtown Denver - Business Improvement District*
    • Downtown Design Advisory Board
    • Early Childhood Council, Denver
    • East 13th Avenue Local Maintenance District
    • Equalization, Board of
    • Ethics Board
    • Facilities and Energy Efficiency Board
    • Federal Boulevard - Business Improvement District*
    • Five Points Business Improvement DistrictFootball Stadium District*
    • Four Mile Historic Park
    • Golden Triangle Local Maintenance District
    • Expanded Greek Town Local Maintenance District
    • Green Building Technical Advisory Committee
    • Head Start Policy Council*
    • Health & Hospital Authority*
    • Health Care Insurance Committee
    • Health Services, Denver Community
    • Healthy Foods for Kids Commission
    • HIV Resources Planning Council
    • Housing Authority, Denver*
    • Human Rights and Community Relations Advisory Council*
    • Human Services Board
    • Immigrant Legal Services Fund
    • Immigrant & Refugee Commission, Denver*
    • Judicial Discipline Commission
    • Judicial Nominating Commission
    • Landmark Preservation
    • Latino Commission, Denver*
    • LGBTQ Commission*
    • Library Commission
    • Lower Downtown Design Review Commission
    • Lowry Community Advisory Committee*
    • Lowry Redevelopment Authority
    • Mayor's Youth Commission*
    • Mental Health Center of Denver
    • Metro Water Recovery*
    • National Western Center Authority*
    • Nonprofit Engagement Commission*
    • Sustainability Advisory Council
    • Parks & Recreation Board
    • Pedestrian Advisory Committee
    • Planning Board
    • Pre-School Program Board of Directors, Denver*
    • Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel
    • Public Health & Environment, Board of*
    • Regional Emergency Medical Trauma*
    • Retirement Board, Denver Employees
    • River North - Business Improvement District*
    • Salary Redirection Committee
    • Santa Fe - Business Improvement District*
    • Santa Fe Drive 'C' Local Maintenance District C
    • Skyline Park Local Maintenance District
    • South Broadway Streetscape (Arizona to Iowa) Local Maintenance District
    • South Broadway Streetscape (Iowa to Wesley) Local Maintenance District
    • South Broadway Streetscape (Wesley to Yale) Local Maintenance District
    • South Downing Street Local Maintenance District
    • St. Luke's Local Maintenance District
    • Stapleton Development Corporation*
    • Sustainable Food Policy Council
    • Tennyson Street II Local Maintenance District
    • Tennyson Streetscape (Portions of 38th Ave. to 44th Ave.) Local Maintenance District
    • Transportation and Infrastructure Advisory Board
    • Urban Renewal Authority, Denver*
    • VISIT Denver
    • Water Board
    • West 32nd Avenue Local Maintenance District
    • West 38th Avenue Phase I Local Maintenance District
    • Phase II West 38th Avenue Local Maintenance District
    • West 44th Avenue and Eliot Street Local Maintenance District
    • West Colfax - Business Improvement District*
    • Winterpark Trust*
    • Women's Commission*
    • Workforce Development Board
    • Zoological Foundation Board of Trustees


So there are some big things and tiny things you have a big say in.

You'll be in charge of the third busiest airport in the world. That means the travel experience of the 69 million passengers flying through every year will, at least partially, fall on you.

You'll oversee operations at one of the top-grossing venues in the world: Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Sylvan Esso plays Red Rocks, July 18, 2018. (Courtesy Kevin J. Beaty)
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Here's a sampling of stuff you'll oversee (feel free to skim, since you probably won't have time to pay deep attention to all of this):

The city's budget, roads, bike lanes, libraries, scooter and bike share programs, transportation visions (up until 2050), car crashes, neighborhood plans, paving, potholes, public restrooms (not that we have many), the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center, ADA ramps, stormwater drainage, sewage (yum), street design, 145 special districts, 250-plus urban parks, 22 mountain parks, 24 conservation areas, 30 rec centers, 31 pools, mini-golf, regulation-length courses, driving ranges, the tree canopy, pests and weeds at the parks, the appraisal and recording of all real estate, capital planning and city real estate, accounting, payroll, risk management, workers compensation, trash, traffic lights, traffic signs, crosswalks, playgrounds, bonds, financing, contracts, crime, jails, evictions, law enforcement conduct, pitbulls, abandoned turtles and other pets, protest control, drugs, fires, building safety, licenses for businesses and AirBnBs, bars, liquor stores, dispensaries, landlord registries, amusement parks, alarm permits, auctioneers, disciplining and celebrating law enforcement, open records requests, transparency, 911, police, fire, sheriff services, community corrections beyond incarceration, gang reduction, youth crime prevention, housing, mental health treatment, substance use response, the Street Enforcement Team, evictions, the vehicle impound, foreclosure auctions, civil processes, court services, the police academy, concealed carry permitting, victim services, Denver Police community outreach, and on and on and on.

Have a headache yet? Remember: That's just a fraction of things you run. Let's put it this way. If a city worker, a visitor or a resident has a great or bad time, you likely have something to do with it.

If you take the job and decide to flee, you have somebody there to help bail you out. That's the Deputy Mayor. And you pick the person.

You get to appoint one cabinet member -- somebody running a charter department -- as a deputy mayor for a one-year term. That person acts as a kind of like a vice president, and there are a string of rules about what happens if you, the mayor, resign or die or are otherwise incapacitated. But we'll save a review of those for a day we hope never comes, unless you get a higher-paying, lower-stress job and leave the post, which some mayors have done.

If you disappear, that unlucky person gets all that power (and pain) you once enjoyed.

Mayor Michael Hancock speaks to his staff during a party in support of all city bond measures just after 8:30 p.m. election results arrived. Nov. 2, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

So here's the skinny.

You'll be hiring and appointing more people than there are days in a year. They'll be hiring people too.

The city has more than 11,000 employees, most of whom will call you boss -- and likely resent you, if you're not doing a stellar job and probably still resent you if you are.

You'll come into office thinking you can fix the biggest problems for citizens who put all their hopes in you. Chances are, your solutions won't be perfect. You can't wave a magic wand and make things better. Tragedy will strike, and you'll be tasked with comforting the city -- even when the city loathes you.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, they say. And your head, future mayor, will be weighed down beneath the dirt under your toes.

Still think the job's right for you?

Good luck.

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