CAN'T WE ALL GET ALONG?

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

Wiedemann hired Hermsen as a subcontractor to set up meetings with residents from nearby Highland and other affected neighborhoods. Though he has run a "fair number" of public meetings himself in the past, Wiedemann says it made sense to have a Denver-based company on board to help "communicate" the study results to the public. "We felt it would be a good idea," Wiedemann says. "We didn't have the local contacts."

There was another reason to bring Hermsen in, Wiedemann says: She helped him meet requirements on the inclusion of woman- and minority-owned businesses on federally funded projects. "The firm we used happened to meet that profile," Wiedemann says.

But hiring Hermsen didn't do any good. Despite Wiedemann's finding that the heliport would cause little disruption, residents complained loudly about the increase in noise they believed the facility would cause in their neighborhoods. In response, Mayor Webb recently grounded the project ("Choppers Get Axed," August 24).

Highland residents say that, despite the presence of a facilitator at heliport meetings, city staffers seemed bent on moving forward with the project regardless of their complaints. "The process was terrible," says Highland resident David Brehm. "They [the city] were arrogant and seemed to be very secretive. Their whole attitude was, `Trust us, this isn't going to hurt you.'" And Shelly Garcia, another resident, says she didn't consider Hermsen's firm to be a neutral party during the talks. "Her function was to sell this to the neighborhood," Garcia says.

Hermsen agrees that Highland neighbors probably perceived her to be an agent of the city on the heliport. In general, though, she says facilitators provide as valuable and valid a service as the attorneys, architects and other outside advisors government agencies retain all the time. "It's equally important," she says. "Why should you hire professional engineers but not professional public-involvement people?"

And despite attacks by critics such as Hackworth, the facilitation craze shows no signs of abating. Recently, in fact, the city brought in facilitators on a project that would appear to be entirely uncontroversial: the design of Rockmont Park, a project planned for the Central Platte Valley.

The Denver parks department is paying Civitas Inc., a landscape architectural firm, $90,000 to design the park on a triangular lot near Interstate 25, says Jill Kotewicz, a senior landscape architect for the city. Of that, about $10,000 is for a facilitation subconsultant, Kotewicz says. The facilitator, Denver's Design Ventures Inc., has staged seven meetings with residents and will be incorporating citizen suggestions into the park blueprint.

"If we can be involved from the beginning, we can try to get the project started on the right foot," says Design Ventures' James Cromar. The neighborhood meetings, he says, have allowed "the people in the community to contribute their knowledge to the experts." Neighbors have made it clear they would prefer basketball hoops and horseshoe pits to tennis courts at the new park. And they've asked the city not to put in a paved loop for cars, fearing that such an amenity would attract "cruisers" and other undesirables, Cromar says.

Having a facilitator on such projects "creates inclusion," Cromar says, and helps the city "get a better product." Maggie Sperling, the facilitator on Denver's recreation needs assessment, agrees. "You're better off spending too much time listening to people than not," she says. "I think it makes for better government."

But Hackworth says he finds it ironic that claims of good government are used to justify the hiring of facilitators--especially considering all the money that facilitators end up costing taxpayers. The real problem, he says, is that government officials, in an age of $3.9 billion airports, don't think twice about spending a few thousand dollars on an unnecessary consultant.

"Sometimes they lose track of zeros and just forget what zeros are," Hackworth says. "It's easy to talk about a billion [dollars] now. Thousands don't even count anymore.

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