The Secret Garden

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

For six years, local landscaper and gardening writer John Starnes has been leading summer tours of Fairmount Cemetery, a green thumb's paradise with 75 varieties of roses. The tours were always presented through the Denver Botanic Gardens, which offers numerous quarterly classes and programs.

But this year, after confused rosarians began calling the cemetery to ask what had happened to the annual outings, Starnes learned that the popular program had been left out of the latest catalogue. So many people had left the education department at the Botanic Gardens over the preceding year that none of the new or remaining employees knew how to contact Starnes. He finally decided to lead the tours on his own.

The mixup is typical of the chaos that the Botanic Gardens has been in for the last two years, employees say -- ever since Brinsley Burbidge took over as executive director in February 1999. A few weeks ago, a group of current and former staff members, calling themselves the Friends of Botanic Gardens, sent a letter to the organization's fifty-member board of trustees outlining a host of concerns about Burbidge, who came to Denver after leaving the head post at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami. The employees have described his management style as dictatorial and accused him of either firing people who dared to question him, forcing them to resign or simply eliminating their positions.

Most of the former employees who spoke to Westword say they understand that when new leaders are hired at institutions such as the Botanic Gardens, it's natural for them to change things around and bring in new people. But they say Burbidge and some of his managers have taken that to the extreme. One former employee who is part of the Friends of Botanic Gardens -- a group whose members wish, for the moment, to remain anonymous -- expounds on these issues:

"In the past two or so years, the staff turnover rate due to firings, forced resignations and position eliminations has been alarming," the ex-employee wrote in an e-mail to Westword. "It concerns us that the administration at DBG wants to ask the taxpayers for forty million more dollars when they can't seem to efficiently manage what they currently have."

After receiving the letter from the group, the Gardens' board of trustees assembled a four-member subcommittee to look into the allegations. The board met with the group on June 3.

Rather than have Burbidge comment, Botanic Gardens spokeswoman Robin Lybarger has referred all inquiries on the matter to trustee Richard Mandelson, who was selected to chair the subcommittee. Mandelson, a lawyer specializing in employment litigation, won't discuss the specifics of the letter, but he says the complaints all had to do with employee turnover, management and employment issues. "We're certainly treating this seriously, and we're doing a thorough investigation," he says. "We've retained an independent investigator to look into the employment issues."

One of six trustees appointed by Mayor Wellington Webb to represent the neighborhood surrounding the Gardens, Mandelson declines to say exactly how many people belong to Friends of Botanic Gardens, but he notes that there are "quite a few." The subcommittee is keeping that number confidential -- even from the rest of the board.

He also says the employee turnover rate in and of itself isn't that significant. According to the Mountain States Employers Council, the average employee turnover rate for all kinds of employers in the Denver/Boulder area was 35 percent in the year 2000. "We're at or below that figure," Mandelson says. "I don't think we're that abnormal." (Earlier this year, the Botanic Gardens reported that it had experienced a 42 percent turnover in the last year, however, and many employees feel it's even higher than that). Mandelson adds that 84 percent of the employees who left did so of their own accord. There are currently about one hundred full-time employees at DBG, Lybarger says.

The upheaval comes at a particularly bad time for the Gardens, as the board seeks approval from the mayor and the city council to place a $40 million bond issue on the November ballot. DBG already has to compete with other institutions that are vying for taxpayer support; the Denver Center for the Performing Arts wants $65 million to renovate its auditorium, and Denver Health Medical Center wants $100 million to expand. Webb has already stated that the city's need for a new, $300 million jail is his top priority. Since voters may not be willing to give $505 million all at once, some of these bond issues may not make it onto the ballot, or they may have to be pared down.

If the Botanic Gardens does get its bond issue on the ballot, it plans to raise another $20 million on its own. The money would help build a glass-enclosed house between Josephine and York streets, across from its current location; the 15,500-square-foot structure would allow visitors to view plants year-round. A 180-car parking structure would be buried beneath the giant house, and a bridge would connect the new building to the existing one. The money would also allow the Botanic Gardens to open a western entrance from Cheesman Park, create a children's garden and family learning center, build a new visitors' center at the main gate and build glass houses to feature plants not currently on display.

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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