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Sowing Discontent

The anti-crime Weed and Seed program is leaving behind a lot of scorn and thorns in Denver neighborhoods.

On July 1, several children in the Baker-La Alma neighborhood were playing in back of the storefront offices of Weed and Seed, a federally funded anti-crime program that pumps money into several impoverished Denver neighborhoods.

Suddenly, nine-year-old Ivan Jorgensen was hit under the eye by a rake that another boy was swinging around. His mom, Erika Jorgensen, a Weed and Seed volunteer, was too shaken to drive her son the few blocks to Denver General Hospital, so an ambulance was called to ferry him there, where the bloody gash was stitched up.

It was an accident, but as with most everything connected with Weed and Seed, the incident escalated out of control. Fingers began pointing at the program's neighborhood coordinator, Fancy Frandsen, whom Jorgensen and others say was in the office at the time of the accident instead of watching over the kids out back.

Tension between Frandsen and neighborhood leaders had been brewing for months. Now it bubbled over.

Frandsen's summer "perform and reward" program for kids was temporarily mothballed while a series of heated meetings was held by the community's Neighborhood Partnership Team (NPT), which oversees the Weed and Seed grant money that comes into the area. Frandsen was narrowly suspended by a vote of 7 to 6, and the schism led to the resignation of the previous partnership team president, followed soon after by the vice president and the treasurer.

More than a month later, Frandsen's program still hasn't started again, and no one has assumed her job's outreach and bookkeeping responsibilities.

"I'm on suspension, but I don't know what I'm suspended from and what I'm suspended for," she says. "There was no just cause or due process. I'm in limbo, and I'm going to stay out and make everyone happy until they decide what to do with me."

Frandsen's case--personality conflicts and blame-mongering--seems typical of the entire Weed and Seed program, which has been plagued by troubles since it began four years ago. So far, Weed and Seed has been the subject of two audits by its funding agency, the U.S. Department of Justice. Three project directors have come and gone. Formerly operated through the city's Office of Human Rights and Community Relations, it's now run by the Department of Safety. And what's more, crime has not declined significantly in any of its five neighborhoods since the program's inception.

Designed to bring harmony to neighborhoods, Weed and Seed has funded some worthwhile programs aimed at cutting crime and helping kids. But it also has prompted a cacophony of angry voices decrying its money-management problems and uncooperative bureaucrats. In one instance, a person with an extensive police record--who happens to be a brother-in-law of the city's manager of public safety--has been placed in charge of crime-fighting efforts in his neighborhood. One of his predecessors had to leave his post to serve a prison sentence for cocaine possession. In another neighborhood, a person who sits on one of the panels that doles out the federal money has herself received more than $100,000 of it. Even the program's former director says Weed and Seed hasn't produced "measurable" results.

"The city hates this program," says one former Weed and Seed employee. "It's a fucking headache. They wish this program would go away, 'cause all it is is a problem."

Weed and Seed was supposed to funnel a portion of federal dollars directly to organized neighborhood groups, which then award the money to "service providers." Weed and Seed and a sister "Neighbor to Neighbor" grant administered by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice have brought more than $2 million into the city since 1992. But the money--and the bureaucratic machinery set up to administer it--has sparked brushfires of bickering. In some neighborhoods, there's agreement only on the feeling that there's no clear sense as to who is in charge and who is accountable. Everyone passes the buck.

"The whole thing has been fraught with controversy--questions about what Weed and Seed was supposed to do," says Veronica Barela of NEWSED, a nonprofit community action group in the Baker and La Alma neighborhoods. "Here in our community, it's become a real bone of contention."

Denver was one of sixteen U.S. cities initially selected for the program, which has grown steadily in the city since the original Weed and Seed neighborhoods, Cole and Baker-La Alma, were funded in 1992. Highland and Capitol Hill were added in 1994, and Five Points was named the fifth neighborhood last year. Annual funding will decrease in 1997, the program's final year, from more than $630,000 this year to $200,000, in order to force neighborhoods to be self-sufficient and find their own sources of money.

The program was first audited in the fall of 1994, as part of a federal review of all Weed and Seed operations, and was found to be poorly managed in its first two years. But like many other situations concerning Weed and Seed, even the auditing process is shrouded by suspicion--local officials refuse to release copies of the audit. "No one knew how the money was spent," says a federal official who fears for his job if he's quoted by name. "We did feel money that was handed out wasn't accounted for very well. They mixed the money together, and they couldn't separate it out. The second audit tried to sort out the expenditures, how the money was spent."

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