Denver mayor Wellington Webb's campaign to revitalize the South Platte River has sent currents of currency flowing to a veteran Democratic operative--and it's reopened the floodgates in a dispute over the city's hiring of outside law firms.
Ken Salazar, who served in Governor Roy Romer's cabinet for three and a half years as director of the Department of Natural Resources, is now receiving $185 per hour to help the city "enhance the values" of the ten-mile stretch of river that runs through Denver--an effort that includes a little-publicized plan to evict homeless people who live along the banks. Salazar is an attorney for the Denver law firm of Parcel, Mauro, Hultin and Spaanstra; that firm's senior business advisor is former Romer chief of staff Stewart Bliss.
An administration official says the law firm's political connections had nothing to do with Salazar's hiring. "Ken is one of the brightest consultants I've worked with," says Andrew Wallach, Webb's point man on the South Platte initiative.
But City Auditor Don Mares has questioned the city's contract with Salazar's firm, a $175,000 agreement that Denver now wants to bump up to $215,000. In a September 11 letter to City Attorney Dan Muse, Mares noted that when he okayed the initial contract two years ago, it was his understanding that Parcel, Mauro was being hired to help get the South Platte River Valley Corridor project "out of dry dock.
"Just as it takes a special effort to christen and launch an ocean liner, so it was that I thought PMH&S was hired to help push the ship into the water," Mares wrote. "Now it appears PMH&S is going to be a passenger on board for the entire cruise."
Mares went on to question whether there were attorneys in Muse's office capable of taking over the project after Salazar's firm had "shown us the way."
The hiring of outside legal counsel is a touchy subject with Muse, who came under fire last year when it was revealed his office had spent more than $15 million on outside law firms in three and a half years. Not included in that figure was more than $1 million Muse forked over to a Washington, D.C., firm representing Denver's interests in a federal probe of possible securities fraud at Denver International Airport.
Westword took Muse to court last year when the city attorney refused to turn over billing statements from outside firms by claiming that they were protected by "attorney-client privilege." Muse appeared to be unswayed by the fact that the public was the "client" in those cases, but the city responded by releasing billing statements. Those documents had numerous names and work descriptions blackened out, but they did reveal a pattern of price gouging. For example, they showed that the city was charged $116 per hour for a legal assistant to make Xerox copies and $242 per hour for a lawyer to attend a speech. Other attorneys billed the city hundreds of dollars per hour for the time they spent in the first-class sections of commercial airliners flying to and from Denver.
And Muse apparently still doesn't appreciate being questioned about his hiring decisions. In a response to Mares dated September 27, the city attorney wrote that he "hesitated to share" his authority over the provision of legal services with other officers of the city. He then devoted a single sentence to an explanation of why the hiring of Parcel Mauro was necessary: "The Parcel, Mauro firm brings a particular expertise, not only in natural resources but also in intergovernmental networking."
"Could our staff attorneys provide these services?" Muse added. "Probably. But at what price--in terms of time and resources and at the expense of other important city business?"
Salazar acknowledges that he's being paid lawyer's wages for work that isn't always legal in nature. But he says that whether he's scrutinizing legal documents or engaging in "intergovernmental networking" with the Army Corps of Engineers, his $185-per-hour work is well worth the cost to taxpayers. "I think the water-rights and environmental expertise that we have, and I have personally, really have been very beneficial to the project," he says. "I brought a lot of value to the project."
One of Salazar's key tasks has been drafting an ordinance that will allow the city to keep homeless people from living by the river. That measure, which has been kept under wraps by the administration, would apply rules and regulations now in place at city parks to the river corridor. Fires would be banned, a curfew would be imposed, and no overnight camping would be permitted.
According to Neil Sperandeo, director of long-range planning for the parks department, the homeless "relocation" effort has been postponed until late January. A proposal to begin the effort as early as November 1, Sperandeo told Salazar in a recent memo, posed the prospect of "serious negative publicity" because public notices would have to be posted before Christmas. By waiting, he added, the administration could be "proactive with the media and the public."
Salazar says his non-legal work has included using his governmental contacts to secure federal and state grants for the Platte project, which aims to ensure a defined flow of water through the river to protect wildlife and for recreational purposes. The state's former natural-resources boss has also been paid to mediate disputes on river-related issues, including a clash between members of the Overland Neighborhood Association and local business owners over a proposed expansion of Grant Frontier Park in southwest Denver. That park sits along the river and is a popular way station for migrating waterfowl.
Salazar gets high marks from the neighborhood association for his work on Grant Frontier. "He's very knowledgeable, very city-wise," says Catherine Sandy, president of the neighborhood group. "He's more neutral than me, and I'm Swedish."
Webb aide Wallach has nothing but praise for Salazar, whom he expects to continue working on the Platte project until it's finished. "I actually have tried to talk him into working for the city, and he's turned me down," adds Wallach.
According to Wallach, Salazar's hiring was necessary in part because of an unusual conflict within the city itself. The administration's goals for the Platte, he says, at times diverged from those of the Denver Water Board, which was more interested in serving customers than it was in cutting deals aimed at encouraging river rafting and other recreational activities. "We basically wanted a second opinion on some of those issues," Wallach says, and Salazar provided it.
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Auditor Mares, however, remains concerned about the creeping nature of the Salazar contract. Salazar started working for the city in October 1994, about five months after he stopped working for Governor Romer. The original amount of the contract was $50,000. The agreement has been amended upward twice since then.
And Mares isn't finished with Muse, either. In an October 7 letter to the city attorney, the auditor reluctantly agreed to sign the Salazar contract but reiterated his request for a full explanation as to why attorneys already on the city payroll can't handle the work. Mares also questioned Muse's decision to pay Salazar his usual hourly fee for work unrelated to legal issues. "Should we not have a separate arrangement with him to be doing general consulting work at a lower hourly rate?" Mares asked. And the auditor expressed reservations about a second "special counsel" contract Muse has approved that pays the law firm of Opperman & Associates to acquire real estate along the Platte.
"It's just him questioning what is the best way to spend taxpayer dollars," Romaine Pacheco, public-relations director for the auditor, says of her boss's letter. "Is it through hiring consultants in every case?