By Alan Prendergast
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It cost Denver taxpayers $700 to have Lance Allrunner arrange a secret ghost-busting ceremony at Denver International Airport last month. But the way Allrunner sees it, it was money well spent.
Allrunner, a 26-year-old Denver resident, traveled by car to the Cheyenne Indian reservations in Oklahoma and Montana earlier this year as an emissary of Denver mayor Wellington Webb. His mission: to confer with leaders of the tribe about ancient spirits allegedly agitated during the construction of DIA.
Rumors that the new airport was built atop a Native American burial ground have circulated for years, though copious archaeological research has never found any evidence to support them. What's more, a group of Indians already blessed the airport in a religious ceremony eight years before. But Allrunner, a volunteer member of the city's "DIA Spiritual Resolution Committee," says it was best not to take any chances. Allrunner, who is part Cheyenne, succeeded in convincing representatives of the Montana Cheyenne to come to DIA and calm the Indian ghosts in a nighttime ritual conducted on Easter weekend.
"Whenever [spirits] are disturbed, it seems like bad things come about," Allrunner says. "I was thinking about the safety of people."
Reimbursement for Allrunner's travel costs, records show, came from the Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations, an obscure branch of city government that has engendered more than its share of controversy in the past year.
The stated mission of HRCR is to make sure City Hall has a human face--and, in the words of its director, to take care of "the most vulnerable of Denver's citizens." But critics of the agency, including former employees, say that under the current administration, HRCR has been plagued by mismanagement, political cronyism and spending that has ranged from the wasteful to the simply bizarre.
"The whole agency stinks," says Michelle Mobley, a former Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) worker assigned to HRCR last summer.
Last year Webb transferred responsibility for the federally funded "Weed & Seed" anti-crime program from HRCR to another city department after residents charged that the initiative was being mismanaged. But complaints about the program have persisted. Just last week, former HRCR employee Sue Weinstein went public with allegations that her colleagues at Weed & Seed had been hired on the basis of their ties to Webb and were more concerned with serving the mayor than with fighting crime in city neighborhoods.
In March, KMGH-TV/Channel 7 revealed that a block captain in HRCR's Neighborhood Watch program had been indicted by a federal grand jury for drug trafficking. Around the same time, Westword reported that an HRCR anti-crime coordinator active in the Webb campaign had been arrested three times in the past twelve years.
Larry Borom, the former head of the Denver Urban League whom Webb appointed to head HRCR in 1993, says the agency does a good job overall. "We serve as a liaison between the city and the citizens," Borom says. "That's what makes the city a human place--a place that cares about its citizens."
And some Denver residents say they are truly thankful for HRCR. Highland neighborhood resident Russ Tarver, for instance, says the agency helped him get a handicapped parking space in front of his home after he suffered a stroke a few years ago.
But even Tarver, who sits on the board of his neighborhood association, voices frustration with the agency. When he went back to HRCR last year to get Neighborhood Watch materials translated into Spanish for Highland's Hispanic residents, he says, staffers were rude and uncooperative. "They didn't want to help," Tarver says. "They didn't want to do anything."
Webb's political opponents, including supporters of Mary DeGroot, Webb's challenger in the mayoral election, go even further, charging that the agency has been used as a taxpayer-funded auxiliary of the Webb campaign. HRCR is "real good at promoting supporters of Mayor Webb, in my opinion," says city councilman Ted Hackworth, a longtime Webb foe. "That's its main purpose."
Founded in 1948, HRCR has grown into an umbrella agency whose official goals couldn't be loftier. The current city ordinance authorizing HRCR says its purpose is to provide "an equal opportunity for citizens of Denver to participate fully in the economic, cultural and intellectual life of the city."
The agency attempts to do that by supervising nine different offices and commissions, each with separate responsibilities. There's the Commission on Youth, which oversees programs for city teenagers and runs the Neighborhood Watch anti-crime program. There's the Public Safety Review Commission, which hears citizen complaints of police brutality. There's the Office of Citizen Response, intended to serve as a general governmental troubleshooter for Denver residents and help them negotiate the bureaucratic maze of City Hall.
Borom says HRCR offices like the Denver Women's Commission are important, even in an era when voters are railing against government waste and public spending is being cut to the bone. "For the cost that you pay, you get a very high-quality product--a distilled sense of where the problems are" for women in the city, Borom says. "It's a really important function to empower the women in the community. And no one else does that."