A Thorny Issue

Just when people living near the Denver Botanic Gardens thought that relations with the institution were finally improving, the DBG has come up with a proposal that could wilt further meaningful neighborhood involvement.

Last spring, the DBG's governance committee decided that the board of trustees would be more effective if the number of trustees was reduced from 43 to between 15 and 25. Although a decision has yet to be made on whether that will happen, it would mean that the number of neighborhood representatives on the board would also decrease from six to no fewer than three. But what some neighbors find even more troubling is the way in which those representatives would be picked -- a way that changes a system that has been in place since 1995.

That's the year the City of Denver amended its agreement with the DBG (although the nonprofit institution is autonomous, it sits on city-owned land and gets some of its operating revenue from the city) "for the purpose of fostering communication, cooperation and accountability between the foundation and the citizens of the city, including in particular those residing in the neighborhoods surrounding the Botanic Gardens."

Neighbors had been at odds with the DBG since the early 1990s, when they found out that it was applying for a liquor license. Things got worse when they learned that the Gardens was planning $50 million worth of additions, including a meeting house to be rented out for wedding receptions and a 700-car parking garage. The neighbors were already irate over the DBG's summer concert series, which introduced parking problems and noise to the otherwise quiet environs.

To ease the angry feelings, the 1995 pact established new voting members, known as neighborhood representatives, on the DBG board of trustees; in addition, a Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC) was created to give a unified voice to the various organizations surrounding the Gardens. According to the agreement, the NAC was allowed to nominate up to ten candidates for each neighborhood-representative slot. The trustees would then narrow the choices down to three candidates for each position, and the mayor would make the final selections.

It was a system that the neighbors were happy with, says Debra Adams, co-chair of the NAC.

But now some trustees are recommending that all boardmembers, including the neighborhood reps, be appointed by the Gardens' governance committee, which Adams believes would take the power away from the neighborhood group. "It's all going back to the institution and their decision-making," she says.

The reasoning behind the recommendation is that when boardmembers are selected by different methods, it prevents "a unified plan for trustee qualifications to be implemented," according to the DBG's written plan. "For example, the neighborhood trustees are appointed by the mayor; certain ex-officio trustees, such as the Garden Club of Denver and the Associates of the Botanic Gardens, are automatically members of the board; and other boardmembers are appointed through the nominating process."

Adams believes this change would set the organization back seven years, when there were no neighborhood reps. And removing the mayor from the equation would eliminate objectivity in the selection process, she says.

Now is the time for more local involvement, not less, she adds. Last summer, the DBG announced plans to expand again and renewed its efforts to build a parking structure. The neighbors fought back, and when the Gardens announced that it would delay its attempt to put the $40 million bond initiative before voters, they considered it a victory.

In light of this, the DBG acknowledged the importance of neighborhood support for any expansion plans, and DBG executive director Brinsley Burbidge began holding "town hall" meetings ("Shrinking Violets," July 26, 2001). Speaking to those in attendance at the first meeting in July, he conceded that "in general, we have not spoken to you, and we are remiss in that."

The meetings continued through the end of the year, but now some neighbors are worried that they won't be heard from again. "I have serious concerns about whether the Gardens is at all interested in the concerns of its neighborhood constituents," says Steve Lang, who has lived near the DBG for more than 25 years and belongs to the East Cheesman Neighborhood Association. "This doesn't reassure me at all."

But he's not surprised by the recommendation regarding the neighborhood representatives. "It seems perfectly in character with my experience with the DBG for them to say one thing and do another."

DBG board president Doug Jones worries that neighbors are jumping the gun. "I don't think there's really an issue here," he says. "This is only at the committee level right now. This hasn't been discussed at the board level yet. It's at a very early stage and is a long way from any kind of reality."

Furthermore, if the board does approve of the committee's recommendation, the DBG would have to alter its agreement with the city, and Jones isn't sure what steps that would require. Nor is he sure whether the city would agree to the change.

Andrew Wallach, the mayor's director of policy and implementation, helped negotiate the 1995 amendment to the cooperative agreement. "The whole reason we adopted this format was to work with the neighbors," he says. "The mayor thought it was appropriate to have representatives appointed by his office to make sure that all factions are represented. I don't think we'd abandon the current system of appointments lightly. The mayor will listen to both sides but will think very carefully about making any significant changes."

As it is, the DBG's boardmember selection process is unique among Denver's other quasi city-owned nonprofit institutions, because Mayor Wellington Webb doesn't appoint neighborhood representatives for any of them.

Boardmembers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science recruit and select other trustees, and although many of them live near the museum, none of the 25 members are designated as neighborhood reps. The Denver Zoo's 46-member board is similar, though it does have four mayoral appointees -- none of whom have to be neighborhood reps. The thirty members of the Denver Art Museum's board are selected by museum members. (If the city steps in to help the financially struggling Ocean Journey, as Webb has suggested, its eventual board could have mayoral appointees.)

Under the DBG proposal, the only qualifications for neighborhood representatives would be that they live within one mile of the Gardens. The NAC's Adams, who's met with Burbidge about this issue and is trying to schedule a meeting with the governance committee, says it's not acceptable for the board to choose neighborhood representatives.

Art Blomberg, the NAC's other co-chair, agrees. "Proximity to the Gardens does not equal neighborhood awareness," he says. "We try to make sure we give the DBG good boardmembers who are moderates."

The DBG's Jones understands these concerns, and he says damaging relations with neighbors is the last thing the Gardens wants. "I don't want this to detract the board from its core mission," he explains. "If this stirs up pots that don't need to be stirred up, we don't need to go there. But if it could be beneficial, we need to discuss it."

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