Off Limits

What does a pol do to cap off the week when Time magazine names him one of the top five mayors in the country? If you're Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, you send an e-mail to all city employees detailing recent accomplishments and noting that you are not "seeking the office of governor." And then on Saturday, you make a half-dozen decidedly non-gubernatorial appearances -- hyping early voting in Denver, which kicked off April 23; touting the proposal for a new Denver Justice Center, which the mayor hopes you'll vote for by May 3; dropping by Denver's Barnum Park to observe an attempt to break the Guinness record for the world's longest mural; catching the final performance of Paris on the Platte, the Curious Theatre Company's original play on former Denver mayor Robert Speer.

He didn't run for governor, either.

Gnome on the range: John Gurche, an artist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, may have been commissioned to re-create Homo floresiensis -- an ancient relative of humans recently found on an Indonesian island and nicknamed The Hobbit -- for the cover of the April National Geographic, but there are other, more infamous creatures lurking around the museum.

Hidden in the museum's dioramas are eight tiny gnomes, tucked into such odd spots that two Off Limits operatives in from New York recently spent eight hours -- count 'em, eight! -- scoping out all the little buggers, which were painted into the dioramas in the '70s and '80s, long before Amélie popularized the red-hatted ones. "The elves are a whimsical signature of Kent Pendleton, who painted the backgrounds of many of the museum's dioramas," says museum spokeswoman Laura Holtman. "It was his way of adding a nice personal touch, and people love trying to find where they're hidden."

Not to spoil the fun, but we'd suggest that gnome-lovers start on Level 2 in the North American Wildlife Hall and make their way up to the Explore Colorado exhibit on Level 3. Happy hunting.

Scene and herd: Local cartoonist Ché Rippinger, previously seen in the Denver Post as the author of "Dating and Hand Grenades," has been selected to be Playgirl's new -- and only -- cartoonist, starting with the June issue. "They just did a whole magazine redesign, and they haven't run cartoons since the '70s," Rippinger says. "I've been secretly doing a whole bunch of cartoons for the markets that would be, uh, more in line with Playgirl, so that's how they heard about me. The humor is just a little off the family-newspaper page." We can only hope. ... It used to be that the tower of the Denver City and County Building changed color only three times a year -- for Breast Awareness Month, Prostate Cancer Awareness Month and the annual winter holiday celebration. But this year, it's already seen red for Heart Awareness Month in February, and it's sparkling with pink-and-blue twinklers through April to raise awareness of premature babies.

On the Record

As the fight over Referendum 1A heats up, Off Limits turned to a cooler, calmer head -- that of former manager of safety John Simonet , who ran the Denver County Jail for two decades -- for his take on the new Justice Center proposal.

Q: What's been keeping you busy since your retirement in 2000?

A: For the first four years, I volunteered over at Greenlee Elementary School two days a week. Then my daughter had a baby, and young folks need help, so I watch him two or three days a week. These have been the happiest five years of my life.

Q: Have you been involved much with Referendum 1A, on either side?

A: No, I'm just an old retiree.

Q: As a former manager of safety and director of the jail, do you think 1A is a good solution?

A: Something is so badly needed. It's been so badly overcrowded for so many years. Only because of the good staff have they avoided serious, serious problems. And I'm not being self-serving, because I've been gone for a long time. So, yes, I think this is a good idea.

Q: What do you think of having the jail in Civic Center?

A: I think it's helpful to be downtown for a number of reasons. First, they can separate the courts so that people going for trial aren't coming across witnesses. The other thing is that it's handy for families to get down there. Smith Road is a tough place to get to if your son or husband or brother is out there.

The building, from what I understand, will appear as a public office building, not a jail. Years ago I visited a couple of jails. One was in Virginia, and nobody thought it was a jail because the facade was so beautiful. Simple. It wasn't extravagant. But inside was this secure facility. In San Diego, they built their new facility downtown, and people were complaining that they would have all of these people getting out of jail and hanging around. But all people getting out want is to get back to their families, to get back to their homes. They're not going to be waiting around.

Q: What do you think will happen if the referendum doesn't pass?

A: Boy, that's a tough question. They'll just have to carry on and do what they're doing. But unfortunately, it's become more crowded. It's a very unpleasant place to work and house people. And we have a responsibility to people. Most of them are innocent, coming for pre-trial arraignment. We're a civilized society, and we really should act that way to those people who have no constituency. They may be in jail, but they're still human, and many of them are victims themselves. If this doesn't pass, then the city is going to have a very serious problem to cope with.

Q: What were the most rewarding and most difficult parts of running the jails?

A: I did it for twenty years, and I really enjoyed my job because it was constantly solving problems. The most rewarding thing was the people. I can think of some deputies, and regardless of how bad it was, they always maintained a positive attitude. You meet some remarkable people who work in this dungeon and still have affection for their fellow man, fellow human beings.

People on the outside don't understand that when you go in, you lose your dignity. They take your clothes, take your property, and you have no freedom. It's a challenge to take a situation like that and make it so that people retain their dignity. You can only do that with a good staff and enough space. We want to punish people who have committed crimes, but we can't forget about their dignity.


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