Off Limits

Spring ranting: Some of the volunteers who run the gift shop at the Denver Botanic Gardens are feeling pretty damn contrary about the way their garden's been growing lately. Members of Associates of the Denver Botanic Gardens are steamed about the DBG's decision to seize control of the gift shop a couple of weeks back in a daylight raid that included changing the locks on the place and freezing the bank account of the Associates, who traditionally have handled the finances at the shop and then forked over the cash to Gardens bigwigs at the end of the year.

This isn't the first row at the Gardens, which over the past decade has cultivated feuds as effectively as it has pushed up daisies. In the late 1980s, staffers at the Gardens ousted executive director Merle M. Moore via a peasants' revolt. A few years later, tempers flared over efforts to redesign the Gardens, including a bureaucrat's blockheaded decision to chop down a cherry tree that had been planted by the Prince and Princess of Japan. Next in line to get their hoses out of joint: the Gardens' wealthy neighbors in the Morgan Historic District, who in 1994 raised a stink about the increased number of amplified concerts at the venue.

So how were the seeds of this latest dispute planted? According to Mary Johnson, the DBG's director of marketing and special events, it all started when the board of trustees decided the Associates just weren't running the gift shop efficiently enough. "The financial picture in the gift shop is not nearly as good as the average in the museum industry," says Johnson. "In fact, we're off the scale on the low end." And since the DBG shelled out $250,000 for a gift-shop expansion last May, it expected results--something Johnson says will be easier to get if the retail outlet is brought under the control of DBG administrators.

However, those plans didn't sit well with some of the Associates, who recently voted to fire up their Weedeaters, set their Garden Weasels on "stun" and launch a horticultural revolution over the issue. After all, it was the Associates who started the gift shop in 1963 with a $500 loan from the Gardens; the money was paid back the next year, and since then the volunteer group has pretty much run the place. With that kind of sweat equity invested, the volunteers didn't take kindly to DBG executive director Richard Daley's suggestion that they step aside and let a pro run things. In a letter sent to Daley and the board, the group--known as "the Instigators"--scolded the administration for changing the locks without affording them "the luxury or the dignity of prior notice" and for grabbing inventory that had a book value of $199,000.

"When the change came about, some of those women did a lot of things that could be considered a little over the edge," says the administration's Johnson. "They took the checkbook, they took the inventory records, and they claimed that all the cash and assets are theirs." Adds Johnson, "If this had happened anywhere else, a lot more would have been done than changing the locks." The Gardens responded by freezing the Associates' bank account, but not before the cabbage-patch commandos had taken the money out. So where's the cash? "We don't know," says Johnson. "We still haven't found it. I don't know if it's being held hostage, but it's being held somewhere else."

As for the Instigators, they're not eager to discuss the matter. Associates president Ginny Barber, who didn't back the revolt, says she can understand her colleagues' pique about the abrupt transfer of power but adds that taking the checkbook and stomping out probably wasn't the most helpful response. "These are valuable people, but it just wasn't handled right on either side," says Barber, who adds that she feels terrible about the whole thing. Meanwhile, meetings continue to take place in an attempt to reach a settlement. "We're hoping to try and smooth feelings here, to try and let them know we appreciate them," says Johnson, referring to the Associates. "We rely on their volunteer labor to keep the gift shop open."

But then, they never promised you a rose garden.

March madness: Yes, the time has come to grab your crying towels and wave goodbye to Alvertis Simmons, the former Million Man Marcher and campaign worker for Wellington Webb who grew to be a royal embarrassment for the mayor thanks to revelations about arrests for shoplifting and domestic violence and a long list of civil suits filed against him down at Denver County Court. Those pesky judicial matters came to light even as Simmons--an angry young dude once known for shouting down Webb opponents during campaign events--was helping run the city's crime-fighting Neighborhood Watch program.

Following his formal resignation earlier this month on account of "stress," Big Al's last day on the city payroll is scheduled to be March 31. So what will this mean to the State of Colorado, whose student loan program is already garnisheeing Simmons's city paycheck in order to collect on the $6,251 he still owes taxpayers for financing his education? (The garnishment was entered in September 1996, but city auditor spokeswoman Romaine Pacheco says her office didn't start taking the money out until December 1997 because other garnishments were already in place.) What happens to creditors/corporate oppressors Ford Motor Company and GMAC, both of whom have won civil judgments against Big Al for overdue car loans in the past six months? The activist told reporters that he planned to write a book after leaving the city, and he was last seen threatening to go ballistic if minority construction firms didn't get a big enough piece of the pie on a Broncos stadium project. So here's an idea: Since the minority firm already selected for a stadium job is Empire Construction--run by former city councilman and public works director Bill Roberts--maybe Big Al could use his city connections to land a job there. Then taxpayers could pay Empire to build the stadium, Empire could pay Alvertis (who wouldn't have to go to the trouble of writing a bestseller), the state could garnishee his paycheck, and the taxpayers could keep paying themselves back!

Just a thought.

Holiday in: This past Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day, marked the second anniversary of the death of Rocky Mountain News columnist Greg Lopez. Sydney Stone observed the day by filing a defamation lawsuit against the New York Times and reporter James Brooke, claiming that the paper's story on the events surrounding Lopez's death, titled "A Web of Money, Drugs and Death," had invaded her privacy.

Lopez was killed as he was driving home on I-25, knocked off the road by a speeding BMW that fled the scene. The owner of that rare car, local trust-funder Spicer Breeden, killed himself (and popped a cap into his dog, Gambo) two days later, as police closed in on his house in the Belcaro neighborhood. Before Breeden died, he scrawled a suicide note claiming he wasn't driving the "vehical" and leaving his worldly goods to Stone, an attractive older blonde who describes herself as a mother and a sister--but not a lover--to Spice Boy and adds that making fun of his spelling is a really mean thing to do because he was dyslexic. Last March, Breeden's companion in the BMW, self-described artist Peter Schmitz, went on trial for vehicular homicide in Denver District Court; defended by Yber-barrister Walter Gerash, he was acquitted.

After a visit to his native Germany, Herr Schmitz is back in Denver, still haunting the LoDo bars that fueled his and Breeden's St. Patrick's Day activities two years ago. Lopez's widow gave birth to Greg's daughter in October 1996; she has since settled a lawsuit filed on the child's behalf against Schmitz and the Breeden estate.

On Monday, the same day the libel suit was filed against the Times, Stone stopped by a probate hearing in another case at the Denver courthouse. But when a judge sealed the hearing, she was booted out into the hallway, along with a newspaper reporter, after being recognized by public trustee R. L. Steenrod, the same attorney with whom she clashed in the Breeden case over his allegedly excessive billings for lawn care and other sundries at Spice Boy's crash pad. Some days it just doesn't pay to go down to the courthouse.

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