If civic engagement is a game, Denver City Council scored majorly on Monday night.
All members but one were present for the council’s first public-comment session — an initiative championed by first-term councilman Paul Kashmann and approved in May — during which residents are allowed to speak about a topic of their choosing for three minutes before the regularly scheduled council meeting.
Of the eleven Denverites who signed up, only seven showed.
But what they lacked in numbers they made up for in passion. Armed with sheets of paper covered in chicken-scratch or neat typing – or just a few ideas swirling in their heads and a lot of nerve – speakers approached the podium and mostly chastised council members for Denver’s crumbling infrastructure, policing issues and whatever other problems exist in their corners of the city.
Public Commenter No. 1, a gentleman in overalls who was wearing a button opposing a toll road on Interstate 70, said his topic of choosing would have been “ditch the ditch,” a popular movement that opposes the controversial I-70 expansion project. But he switched gears at the last minute, after an encounter with a Denver County Sheriff’s deputy outside the the City & County Building moments before the public-comment session.
The deputy had asked the commenter to remove a sign from his bag, as signs are banned from council meetings. When the commenter refused, the deputy threatened arrest. “That’s what you have reduced government to,” the man told council members, alluding to the deputy’s — and in turn, the council’s — policy. “I am outraged.”
And with that, he walked away from the mic with some of his three minutes left to spare and exited the chambers.
An usher who works at the Denver Performing Arts Complex spoke next. Dressed in a white top and black vest, she lamented that the city has reduced its usher staff from 200 to 45, and asked council to consider not only bolstering those numbers, but also giving ushers a raise. As a seventeen-year-veteran usher, she said, she only made $8.42 an hour; those with even less experience make around $8.31. She barely had enough time to make her point before her time was up. She then thanked the council, smiled and rejoined her group of similarly aged women, one of whom sported lavender hair.
A latecomer ushered his two young blonde daughters to a bench before taking the microphone. A resident of the Overland neighborhood, the speaker urged the city to create better public infrastructure in the area, specifically by reconstructing “Shaky Steve,” a nickname for an old pedestrian bridge near his home. His children walk across the bridge to school every day, he said, and he’s concerned that it’s unstable enough to one day collapse.
The bridge is a known issue in his community, he added. He and some neighbors once brought it up to their council representative, who told them that more businesses needed to move to the area to spur investment in public infrastructure. But “businesses do not use pedestrian bridges,” the commenter pointed out. “People, kids use pedestrian bridges.”
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One of the final speakers offered praise for the aid of his council rep — a “lovely woman” with whom he had been working very closely — and delivered perhaps the night’s simplest request. The gentleman, who walked with a cane, asked that council consider putting a bench at his bus stop so he could sit when he felt tired.
The humble request seemed a fitting close for the thirty-minute session, which was reduced to closer to twenty minutes for lack of participation. Council members listened and jotted notes, though some seemed lost in their own thoughts. The audience for this inaugural hearing was sparse, comprising mostly city staffers.
The only energy in the room came from behind the speaker’s podium, as patriotic if slightly quixotic residents placed their frustrations – and their faith – in one of the least glamorous arms of government.
The gentleman with the cane ended his brief comments by thanking council: “I commend you for letting people like me…and other strange people talk to you.”