CAN'T WE ALL GET ALONG?

NOT WITHOUT "FACILITATORS," WHO ARE GETTING IN TOUCH WITH PLENTY OF TAXPAYER MONEY.

But the center's services didn't come cheap. Its total charges to the city climbed to well over $50,000. Records show the university billed Denver taxpayers $1,000 a day for each facilitator assigned to the job. And it sometimes dispatched more than one facilitator to meetings. No less than six were on hand to run a half-day conference at Gove Community School on April 15, bringing the center's bill to $3,000 for its work on that meeting alone.

Lisa Carlson, one of the UCD consultants assigned to the youth-violence task force, calls the effort a "wonderful success." Despite its high cost, Carlson says, hiring facilitators often makes sense because it assures citizens that their concerns are being taken seriously. The public has a "psychological need" to "feel good about the process," Carlson says.

Carlson acknowledges that "all facilitators aren't good in all situations." It pays to bring them in, she says, only in "highly conflictual" disputes; government should be able to handle smaller matters on its own. Webb's Safe City Initiative qualified for use of professional mediators, Carlson says, because "the topic was really volatile."

The use of facilitators is no longer confined to hot-button issues like crime and AIDS. Public agencies in Colorado are now retaining community-relations consultants on a regular basis, driving up the costs of even routine projects.

The Denver Department of Public Works, for instance, now requires contractors to perform facilitation during all major road construction. Under the so-called partnering program, consultants work with neighborhoods to minimize disruption for residents and business owners. "It has been a tremendous success," says spokeswoman Amy Lingg.

Over the last several months, city councilwoman Ramona Martinez has spent about $3,000 from the city budget to have facilitator Joe Gonzales hold meetings between the heads of youth service agencies in an effort to get a handle on the programs offered in her district. Martinez says she got sick of waiting for the Webb administration to perform the assessment, so she went ahead and hired Gonzales herself. "It was very inexpensive," Martinez says. In a work plan filed with the city, Gonzales urged the development of "interorganizational strategies to maximize scarce dollars." He charges $500 a day for his services.

Recently the city council directed the Webb administration to hire Boulder consultant Todd Bryan to moderate meetings between the city and neighborhood groups about the future site of the Salvation Army homeless shelter, which is supposed to move out of its current home at 24th and Blake streets. Bryan's tab: $4,500. Downtown activist Larry Levi supports the decision. "Anything that can further dialogue between the city and the neighborhoods is great," Levi says.

But some critics inside the city planning department say facilitators are often unnecessary. The department, they say, is loaded with people who are capable of running a civilized meeting. Not only are facilitators a waste of money, they say, they often insulate city staff members from the very people they're supposed to be serving. "By delegating to somebody else, then the professional staff loses touch with that relationship to the community," says one city planner, who asks not to be identified. "It's absolutely our job," says another planner. "We're supposed to be able to do all that."

Planning director Jennifer Moulton agrees that facilitators are overused and that communicating with neighborhoods is "clearly a responsibility" of her office.

"It should be the rare occasion that we feel we need to bring in someone from the outside," says Moulton. But, she says, "pervasive distrust" of government makes the use of consultants hard to avoid. "We're a more complex society than we were before," she says. "We're much grumpier."

Some of those grumpy people apparently work in Moulton's own department. After she arrived at planning in 1992, Moulton paid a pair of facilitators about $15,000 to conduct a lengthy series of staff retreats. This summer, after rank-and-file planners asked for a meeting without management present, Moulton complied and paid Boulder's CDR Associates $2,000 to preside over the gripe session.

The planning department isn't the only city agency that has forked over money to help employees communicate with each other. The Department of General Services also paid Denver facilitator June Twinam $750 to run an all-day retreat for its staff members on May 23, records show.

And the presence of facilitators doesn't always dispel the notion of bias in decision-making. The city, for instance, spent about $18,000 to have Denver consultant Gail Hermsen organize neighborhood meetings on a proposed "heliport" in the Central Platte Valley--and still got accused of rigging the process.

The idea for the heliport, a glorified landing pad for privately owned helicopters, first surfaced eight years ago, when the Denver Regional Council of Governments recommended that one be built somewhere in the downtown area. In 1992 the city began studying the idea in detail and hired Randal Wiedemann, a Kentucky-based aviation consultant, to find an appropriate spot for the facility.

Using $75,000 from the Federal Aviation Administration and another $54,000 from the city, Wiedemann settled on the old Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad yard across from the Auraria campus. "There will be minimal impacts to surrounding land uses as a result of the development of the heliport," Wiedemann concluded in a study. "No conflicts between noise and existing land uses are foreseen."

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