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The Secret Garden

Employee concerns bring an early frost to the Botanic Gardens' blossoming bond proposal.

These ambitious plans worry Starnes, who fears that the Gardens are in no position to be taking on such costly projects and that the current managers wouldn't be the best custodians of the money. "They want to utterly transform the Denver Botanic Gardens and have that be their legacy, and anyone with the temerity to raise objections is let go," he says.

"There's a staggering level of waste there already," Starnes adds. For example, he was troubled this spring when he visited the Gardens, only to find that the perennials appropriate for Colorado's dry climate had been replaced with tropical plants better suited to his native Florida; he also discovered large expanses of bare soil where the tropical plants had died. In addition, he noticed that many plants had been placed in large blue pots throughout the gardens -- a much more expensive alternative to planting in the ground.

In May, he wrote a letter to the board in which he lamented the staff turnover; he has since forwarded it to Mayor Webb. "Many, if not most, of the best and brightest and most dedicated staff members have been lost to a pogrom of senseless firings, followed by a great many reluctant resignations," Starnes wrote. "And I have learned that more are to follow. DBG cannot prosper and grow if staffed by a demoralized skeleton crew of 'yes men' with few reasons to believe they have a future here." He says he was answered with a letter from Burbidge, who told Starnes that while his letter was beautifully crafted, none of it was true.

But others have noticed a change at the Gardens, too.

"By the nature of my former role as president, I don't want to second guess the current administration," says Cal Cleworth, a past president of the board of trustees. "But I am concerned about the loss of good people there and I have made that known to the board and the executive director."

And Marcia Tatroe, a garden designer and writer who has taught classes at the Gardens for eight years, says the chaos has made the otherwise routine task of preparing classrooms for gardening lectures difficult. She says that most of the people in the education department left during the seven weeks that she taught courses in gardening ecology and bulbs. "My contact person at the Botanic Gardens changed every week because someone left," she says. One night, fifty students arrived, but the classroom had only twenty seats. Tatroe had to bring her husband along to help set up the slide projectors and other equipment. "There was a crisis of some kind every week. We had to step in and do what the employees would have done, had there been employees."

Other concerns have recently surfaced, too, like the fact that the Botanic Gardens paid for two employees to attend Landmark Education seminars. People who take part in Landmark first enroll in the company's introductory course, called the Landmark Forum, which is billed as "a guided dialogue between the instructor and the participants into what is possible in their lives, a dialogue that gets at the heart of what it is to be human."

But the seminars, designed to help people develop leadership skills, are considered by some to be highly controversial because of Landmark's link to est, a 1970s self-help program that left a lot of its "graduates" feeling psychologically abused. Est stood for Erhard Seminars Training, after its founder, Werner Erhard ("The First Step," May 4, 2000).

Some people question whether a semi-public institution that relies heavily on taxpayer support should pay for employees to attend this dubious program. The City of Denver owns the property that the Botanic Gardens occupies, pays the utility bills there each year and provides a small amount of money for operating expenses; the organization is run, however, by a nonprofit board. The Botanic Gardens also benefits each year from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, a 0.1 percent sales tax that brought in $3.3 million for the Gardens last year -- about half of its budget.

Mandelson says the Botanic Gardens paid for one employee to attend a Landmark seminar last year and for another to attend this year. "It's not unusual for us to send people to leadership seminars," he says. "We didn't send droves of people there. We just paid for two."

However, Mandelson's main concerns as well as the concerns of the other three trustees on the board subcommittee -- Mike Hurtt, Thomas "Tad" Kelly and Tiffany Smink -- involve the employment problems.

"The Friends told us that they didn't come to us to tear down the Gardens, but to see it succeed," Mandelson says. Although there is no deadline for completing the investigation, he says, "We're going to wrap it up as quickly as we can, but we're going to do it thoroughly and fairly."

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