The Meter's Running

From a world-class city to a world-class pity.

It's Magic!

How does Denver City Council get an 18 percent pay raise?

It pulls the Colorado Constitution out of a hat.

On Tuesday, councilmembers on the city's Special Charter Revision Committee lamented that they'd really had no choice but to approve that 18 percent raise, as well as a hefty 11.5 percent hike for the next mayor, the night before. According to the state constitution, which authorized the formation of the City and County of Denver in 1902, the salaries of elected officers must be set "by ordinance" or "within limits fixed by the charter."

For the first seventy years, the Denver City Charter called for voters approving -- or disapproving -- all suggested pay raises for elected officials. After a third defeat, Mayor Tom Currigan resigned, saying he couldn't afford to be mayor anymore. So in 1973, the charter was amended to allow city council to set salaries -- as long as it follows a labyrinthine process that requires the city's Career Service Authority to study compensation of elected officials in comparable cities and then present its findings to council. The CSA offered up those figures last fall; on Monday night, councilmembers decided they had no choice but to raise the salaries of their successors to $73,512.

No choice, that is, but to have proposed a charter amendment that would have asked voters to approve a more reasonable system, one capable of recognizing a city's sorry financial situation, for example. (Denver's currently hacking $44 million from its budget.) But at Tuesday's meeting, and despite a last-second proposal by Councilman Dennis Gallagher, the committee decided that such a noble measure would have to wait for another day -- and another city council.

There's certainly no shortage of candidates willing to run for jobs that paid only $62,304 until Monday's vote. Or would-be mayors -- eight, at the last official count -- willing to do the job for $122,784, rather than the $136,920 the victor will now receive.

Without the possibility of a raise, though, "Where is the incentive to be outstanding?" wondered former councilwoman Cathy Donohue, now a city employee in the Career Service system, where incentives abound.

"If you need an incentive, I think that's questionable," responded Gallagher.

Channel 8, a division of the city's Office of Television and Internet Services, filmed the discussion -- even though OTIS has recently cut back on its roster of televised committee meetings. That got councilmembers almost as cranky as they were last summer, when they found out that OTIS was producing an expensive documentary on Denver since 1990, a time span that just happened to coincide with Webb's years in office. The documentary was dumped, but -- more magic! -- on Monday, a new project debuted on Channel 8. The seventeen-minute The Magic of Government, part of a still-authorized package linked to the May 6 election, uses a cheesy magic-show motif to explain to voters that while government may seem "beyond comprehension," it's really quite sensible if you have a lot of trick boxes, scarves and cards proving that the mayor can be a king or a queen. Or a jackass. (Channel 8 has to do something to stir up the ratings now that Johns TV is on hiatus until there's action again on Colfax.)

Mostly, the production shows that $32,000 can disappear into thin air while telling you little about government (the accompanying Web site is much better) other than the fact that on top of the box containing city agencies, on top of the box containing city council, even on top of the box containing the mayor, is a box with the citizens of Denver. Even if they've been cut off at the legs.

Why not let the voters approve salaries again? They'd know how to take into account current economic climes.

When Donohue was elected to council in 1975, she earned $7,500 -- exactly what she was earning as an executive secretary at an oil company. Today, she said, that position would pay about what a councilmember earns.

Today, responded Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, "that secretary would be out of work."

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