By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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."
Sam Gomez, former president of the Cole NPT, says that what the first audit found was "embarrassing--nobody had the proper data and tracking of those funds. It was as loose as anything you've ever seen. It turned out to be a bunch of finger-pointing, and no one knew where the funds were going."
Current project director Gwen Koehler says that at the conclusion of the first audit, some $160,000 was unaccounted for, and it took several months to whittle the figure down to $1,500. The second audit, begun this spring as a followup, is still being completed, and officials are not disclosing any findings. Koehler, however, says she anticipates that auditors will identify only $3,500 in unaccounted funds, and others confirm that there seems to be little out of the ordinary.
But while program officials claim they finally figured out where the money is coming from and going to, not all are convinced. "As treasurer, I don't know where the money is going," says Marissa Combs, Highland NPT treasurer. "My complaint is that the funds are granted to the neighborhoods. The city is supposed to be a funnel to the neighborhood--it's an obstruction."
Weed and Seed is a two-part program, and most agree that the Weed--or law enforcement--part has been more successful. Instead of just responding to trouble, two police officers are paid in each neighborhood with Weed and Seed money to try to make a more solid connection: They issue pagers so residents can contact them more easily, they attend meetings, and they make an effort to be more visible in the neighborhood.
"The cornerstone of Weed and Seed, in reality, is community-oriented policing," says Greg Murphy, a former member of Highland NPT. "Unfortunately, it's a concept that when you translate that down to the bureaucratic system of the police department, it doesn't always work. It has worked; it's now slipped off a bit to where there's more lip service than actual community policing."
Murphy knows the other side of police work. Last year he had to leave his post as co-chair of Highland NPT after pleading guilty to a cocaine-possession charge stemming from a 1990 bust in Wisconsin. The case was transferred to Colorado, and Murphy began serving a fifteen-month sentence at the federal prison in Englewood in August 1995. He was released about halfway through his sentence.
Murphy says his troubles were well-known to Denver police officers and many neighborhood leaders and that "nobody had a problem with it." But some say they didn't know about Murphy's record until recently.
"We were shocked and disappointed by the news," says a member of Highland United Neighbors, a nonprofit organizaton that Murphy also served on during roughly the same time. "When everyone stopped seeing him, we were told that he was caring for an ill mother out of state."
Murphy says complaints that he was delinquent from his duties up until he began serving his sentence are "total hogwash."
"I gave it 125 percent up until about the time I went," Murphy says, who now sells real estate. "I put more time and effort into that program than any four or five people you could have talked to."
Many neighborhood leaders still applaud the Weed portion of the grant. Toni Tichy, the Cole NPT's first president, says Weed and Seed helped move the police from a policy of containing the burgeoning gang scene in her neighborhood to actually arresting the gangsters and driving them out.
And D. Piccoli, a member of the Highland NPT, says a combination of community activism and police work has reduced what she says used to be a "quite severe" problem of drug transactions taking place on the street, as well as drugs being used in neighborhood bars.
But according to data provided by the city's Department of Safety, the overall incidence of crime has not significantly declined in any of the targeted neighborhoods. Crime has actually risen in Cole, from 464 incidents overall in 1992 to 537 incidents in 1995. Crime has dropped slightly in the Baker area, from 2,330 in 1992 to 2,169 last year.
The Seed ventures--prevention and rehabilitation programs for adults and academic and social programs for kids--have grown tremendously since 1994. They include Christmas toy giveaways, youth job banks, community cleanups and daycare programs.
Capitol Hill NPT president Mark Nachtigal, in general a critic of Weed and Seed, reluctantly points out that a few Seed programs have worked, including a pet vaccination clinic, historic tours of Capitol Hill, and the use of Morey Middle School as a recreation center a few days a week--the only such center in the area.
Highland NPT co-chair Kim Womantree says her neighborhood has many Seed programs going: a teen health project at La Clinica Tepeyac; GED programs at Ashland Recreation Center; several projects at North High School, including a job fair that provided kids with work in attorneys' offices and cleaning up the neighborhood; and a project that takes ten at-risk kids through a six-month counseling-and-employment program and monitors them after the program ends.
But many others involved with Weed and Seed continue to shake their heads over the financial turbulence and management miscues.
"It's a major waste," says Highland's Combs. "I wish we could cut the deficit with things like this. I have not seen a difference in the neighborhood."
Of the two middle schools and two high schools that fall within the boundaries of the original target neighborhoods, none has experienced any decline in the percentage or number of students who have dropped out since 1992. In fact, 97 more youths quit West High School during the 1994-1995 school year then they did the previous year. And at Manual High School, 157 more students left. The overall Denver Public Schools dropout rate among middle school and high school youth increased only 0.9 percent from 1993-94 to 1994-95; but the increase was 3.5 percent at West and 8.8 percent at Manual.
Some neighborhood activists--even those who help distribute the funds--say they wish the funding was dried up so they wouldn't have to endure another year of assigning blame.
"Weed and Seed has caused more damage than good," says Capitol Hill's Nachtigal. "It drained so much time and volunteer hours. The government doesn't realize how much free time and labor they get. No one wants to do any more volunteer work that's connected with the government. It takes so long to get anything accomplished."
C.M. Mangiaracina, program director for a nonprofit organization called Urban Youth Leadership, agrees. He tried to conduct a $2,400 program to take Highland kids rock-climbing in the summer of 1995, but he complains that bureaucratic delays doomed his plans. "I presented this program in February, for early summer," he says. "I didn't get the full grant until August, so I only had five weeks for the kids."
Joe Abeyta, who runs the St. Charles Recreation Center in the Cole neighborhood, says "all the red tape and hassle" of acquiring grant money for recreational programs ($5,000 in 1992, he says, and $2,000 the next year) "just wasn't worth it. We have a big majority of Hispanics, and I don't think anything was geared toward them. Of all the meetings I went to, I was one of the only Hispanics there."
Many of the fingers point to former project director Carlos Guerra. He points right back. "Everybody kept waiting for someone else to fix the problems," says Guerra, who ran the program from early 1994 through the fall of 1995. "Everybody has a responsibility."
Guerra and others say that political pressure from residents in the Weed and Seed neighborhoods prompted the city to move the program from the community-relations department to the Department of Safety. But Guerra himself is disgruntled, too. He says he left because he was "tired of the dynamics," and he says that Weed and Seed produced "no measurable, demonstrable progress." He admits he wasn't personally popular, but not because he wasn't doing a good job, he says. Guerra describes himself as "willing to stand up against the status quo."
Of course, many people think he was the status quo, and neighbors complained to Mayor Wellington Webb the day Webb appointed him in 1994. "The day I was announced," Guerra says, "they went to the mayor and demanded that I be removed. People knew nothing about me."
Fancy Frandsen, who worked for Guerra for a year, says, "I thought he was a very dynamic man. But he got caught in the same crap I got caught in. The same people took him on."
Complaints about Guerra didn't just come from the Baker neighborhood, however; they came from everywhere. One former Highland official even went so far as to call Guerra a moron. "He would come out, he would implement things, then 24 hours later he'd be on a different horse in a different direction," says the former Highland official. "I said, if you're gonna keep doing this, you can have it."
At the end of 1994, Capitol Hill's Nachtigal says, NPT leaders persuaded the mayor to review Guerra's performance, and other candidates were considered for the job. Manager of Safety Butch Montoya "had the four presidents interview the other candidates in early 1995," Nachtigal says. (At the time, there were only four neighborhoods in the program.) "All four neighborhoods said, 'Anyone but Carlos.' There were letters from Highland and Baker complaining about Carlos. But I found out Carlos was staying a week later. The people who found out were very mad."
Guerra eventually left--of his own accord, he says. Some people charge that he was pressured to leave after the city initially failed to reacquire a $300,000 Neighbor to Neighbor grant for 1995 and 1996. (City officials ultimately had to beg for the grant in person.) According to critics, the history of the grant is typical of the program's mismanagement. The first Neighbor to Neighbor grant, which was used together with the Weed and Seed money, was awarded to the city in April 1994 and required the hiring of health workers in the neighborhoods. But such workers weren't found until December of that year. The city had to apply for funds for 1995 and 1996 with little to show from the original funding. Guerra suggests that the new monies were delayed not because of him but because Denver Health and Hospitals couldn't find the specialized health workers the grant required until the grant period was almost up.
DHH points right back at Guerra. "All we were was a part of the committee," says DHH spokeswoman Stephanie Denning. "The project director was responsible for recruiting people."
Guerra smarts from accusations of incompetence hurled his way. "When I took over, nothing was in place," he contends. "I built the procurement and the administrative process." He says he also set up a "fiscal agent" to keep track of the money.
His replacement, Gwen Koehler, has faced the same allegations of incompetence, especially in light of the clashes in Baker-La Alma. "It's awfully convenient to point a finger at one person or one institution," Koehler says, with a mixture of exhaustion and resentment, adding that her position is the one that is always "scapegoated." "I have no qualms saying I'm in this chair because I did the work. I earned it."
But the backbiting at Weed and Seed extends far beyond the project directors. Down in the neighborhoods, numerous feuds have broken out.
In Baker, particularly, residents have feuded with coordinator Fancy Frandsen from the start of her tenure, even though the neighbors themselves selected her for the job. Friction increased in the summer of 1995, when Frandsen initiated her "perform and reward" program in which children earned vouchers that could be applied to buying school clothes and supplies in exchange for doing good deeds around the neighborhood, like picking up trash or walking elderly residents around. Some of the kids made hundreds of dollars, and parents of kids who didn't participate complained that instead of the kids buying school supplies, Fancy took them to Kmart, where they blew the money on junk.
Frandsen says the moms were there with her at Kmart, and she insists the program of thirteen kids was not exclusionary. "All these people who didn't want to work because they didn't know money was involved came out of the woodwork once they found out," she says.
Then there was the time that Frandsen, who is Anglo, referred to some of the children in the neighborhood as "my little Mexicans," which many found inappropriate.
"What's so offensive about that?" says one of Frandsen's Latino defenders, Patrick Vigil. "They are little Mexican kids, and Fancy loves them."
Frandsen adds, "They were upset about my using the word 'Mexicans.' The next group that heard the story was mad because I used the word 'my.'"
More contentious was the Van Incident. Neighborhood leaders claim that Frandsen had planned to buy a van for herself with federal grant money. Frandsen says she was asked by some of the neighbors to buy a van, since she walked from Capitol Hill to Baker to work in the neighborhood.
"As treasurer, problems for me really arose when, a couple months ago, she wanted us to vote on her buying a van," says Baker treasurer Emily Lucero. "That really shook me up. I don't want to get mixed up in something like that. It's not only illegal but unethical to do that. She wanted to purchase the van, plus six months' insurance, plus AAA membership, and she'd pay $345 back a month to the storefront."
Frandsen says she found a deal for a used van that cost around $2,000, and she had planned to reimburse Baker-La Alma's Weed and Seed office in monthly increments. She dismisses complaints about the van as "personal" attacks. "It's amazing what a couple of squeaky wheels can do," Frandsen says. "They're very scary people."
Koehler fumes at the mention of the van, which some irate Baker residents say she was prepared to buy for Frandsen. Koehler denies it. "That was a one-day, one-time discussion," she says. "Why is it put out there still? It feeds some agenda."
Weed and Seed is still functioning in the Baker-La Alma neighborhood, but Frandsen is in limbo, as are her duties of coordinating the various services and operating the "perform and reward" program for kids. She blames jealousy for the situation.
"The bottom line is, I'm making $30,000 a year," Frandsen says. "In a seventy-block area, no one makes that much money. Plus, I'm having fun. I don't think that sets well with people."
But that's just her opinion. "All the neighborhood people I know say that they don't want her," Lucero says. "If we got a petition, 50 percent wouldn't know who she was or what Weed and Seed was, and 45 percent would ask that she not return."
Other neighborhoods also are jousting with their coordinators. In Highland, which began receiving funds in April 1995, controversy has arisen about whether coordinator Paul Roybal was forced on the area by the city because he's the brother-in-law of Manager of Safety Butch Montoya.
Kim Womantree admits there were problems, "primarily in regard to our resource coordinator," but she says, "We went through conflict resolution, and we are getting our work done. We're starting to have a broader base in the neighborhood."
Roybal, who also is a co-chairman of the neighborhood's NPT, says his relationship with Montoya had nothing to do with his getting the job. "I'm a qualified person," he says, "and I have a reputation that I do good work and I'm a good employee."
Highland treasurer Combs strongly disputes that. "Roybal has managed to just sit there--and that's when he shows up, which is not often," says Combs, who adds that a December review that led to Roybal keeping his job was a "joke," in her eyes. "Personally, I gave him a written review that I did not make public, 'cause he was horrible in every aspect of his job."
A former NPT leader who begs anonymity says he left because he believes Roybal forged a letter of recommendation from Deputy Manager of Safety Tracy Howard.
The former leader says the letter "made absolutely no sense, so I knew [Roybal] had done it; the third page had about five misspelled words, so I knew he had done it. Tracy never had anything to do with it."
Howard says he recalls letting Roybal sign Howard's name on a document, but he says he didn't think it was a letter of recommendation.
Asked whether he forged the signature, Roybal replies, "I don't answer to any innuendo. It was resolved in a positive manner. If it was something negative, I wouldn't be here."
But others question why Roybal is in his post, considering his police record, which includes a deferred judgment on a charge of possession of a controlled substance in 1991 and two DUI charges, one in 1991 and one in 1996. (Roybal says the drug charge involved a small amount of cocaine that he says he had recovered while working at a halfway house.) Roybal says his record has no impact on his work, and no one questioned him about it.
"People don't hold everyone accountable for what happened in the past," says Roybal. "They didn't go into detail of the incidents or charges. They just asked me, and that was that. Everything was done through procedure and process and qualifications and experiences."
Asked about the propriety of having someone with a police record run an anti-crime program, Gwen Koehler points out that it was the neighborhood's own decision and says, "I don't think that was a concern. There were four candidates, and the community decided overwhelmingly for Paul." Asked whether the neighborhood knew of his record, Koehler replies, "I suppose some of them did. I don't know how extensively they asked."
"It was never an issue," Womantree says. "We went on his demonstrated ability as an organizer."
In other Weed and Seed neighborhoods, questions revolve around what Guerra himself acknowledges is, "conceptually, one of the flaws of the program": service providers receiving money from the neighborhood and at the same time serving on the board that gives the money out.
Former members of the Cole NPT have questioned the propriety of Bonita Brown's receiving more than $120,000 since 1992 to run a summer youth program that conducts activities such as math and science tutorials and trips to the Denver Public Library and Denver Art Museum. Critics note that Brown got the grant while she was on the board that determined who received the money.
"There was a real serious concern," says Cole NPT member Sam Gomez, "because she was receiving so many funds and she had a strong voice on who got the funds." Moreover, Gomez says he had "never seen anything to substantiate" what her program actually accomplished.
Brown denies any impropriety and contends that most of the members of the NPT were also service providers. "I had to submit a proposal just like everyone else," she says. "I answered questions on it but did not vote on it. They took a consensus." She contends that she's submitted reports about the more than 1,000 kids and their families who have been served by her program.
Much of the bickering and infighting could end naturally when the federal funds run out; the neighborhoods may have a difficult enough time just rustling up their own money. But whether Weed and Seed has been worth the fuss is a question that residents of the neighborhoods are likely to keep discussing.
"Weed and Seed itself, if they give it a chance, it's a very good program, period," says Gloria Jean Olvera, a longtime resident of Baker-La Alma. The problem, however, is that many of the people involved in the program want to "get something for free," she says. "Everyone is out for themselves, right down to these grant monies. They want control. It all ends up in politics, and I don't like politics.