Councilwoman CdeBaca Leads Efforts to Weaken Denver's Strong Mayor's Office

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca has shaken up council.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca has shaken up council.
Courtesy of Candi CdeBaca
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In June, Denver voters elected Mayor Michael Hancock to a third term. But while giving Hancock one more shot to write the final chapter of his legacy, voters also ousted three incumbents running for Denver City Council and elected a new-look legislative body that has shown it’s not afraid to challenge the mayor’s agenda.

The frequent leader of the opposition to the Hancock administration is Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, a longtime community organizer and self-identifying Democratic Socialist who beat Albus Brooks, a close confidant of Hancock’s.

Denver has one of the strongest mayor systems in the state. Whoever serves in the coveted seat is not only the face of the city, but also is also the head of the executive branch of government. And Denver is a home-rule municipality, which means that it has significant independence from the state government, and it’s run as both a city and a county, so there aren’t any county commissioners to pull power away from the mayor.

CdeBaca says she challenges Hancock’s agenda in order to serve as a check on Denver’s strong-mayor system.

“To have...a mayor that is so powerful, appointing every head of every agency, and also having the ability to control several more appointees and also controlling the budget, there’s not a lot of room for real democracy,” she says.

Hancock doesn’t see her challenges that way. He calls her “someone that just wants to try to be disruptive.”

“I can’t react dramatically to what any one city council member does,” Hancock told Kyle Clark in a 9News interview that aired October 22, just before reacting dramatically to one city council member. Hancock told Clark that he hasn’t heard a single idea from CdeBaca “that really goes to the heart of how we keep Denver strong and how we address the issues of all people in our great city.”

When asked about his assertion that she’s simply a disruptor, CdeBaca says, “I must be doing something right for the mayor to spend an entire interview talking about me.

“I saw in that interview how much he internalizes what’s happening, and it’s sad to me that he doesn’t even recognize how little power he, as an individual, has, and how the power he represents is so much bigger and more destructive than he is as an individual,” she continues.

In August, CdeBaca made her presence known on city council by leading a majority of the members to vote against renewing halfway house contracts with the two largest private prison companies in the country. No one closely following Denver politics expected her attempt to nix the contracts to succeed. But it did, forcing the Hancock administration to scramble to find a temporary solution.

Doing away with the contracts temporarily jeopardized hundreds of people who call Denver’s halfway houses home. And Hancock pinned the problem on CdeBaca.

“Some people decided to play politics with the lives of these 500 individuals, as well as almost 200 employees, to make a political statement,” Hancock said on Fox31 while speaking to residents of a CoreCivic halfway house in Denver later in August.

Council ultimately passed a six-month contract with GEO Group and a one-year contract with CoreCivic (the original contracts covered a year). A new committee will meet on a periodic basis to figure out how Denver will transition its halfway house work away from the two companies and partner with other organizations.

CdeBaca has also proposed removing some of the mayor’s authority to make key appointments.

During a city council committee meeting on September 30, she introduced a proposal to make the position of sheriff an elected one.

“The sheriff is probably the smallest entity under the Department of Public Safety, but also one of our biggest liabilities,” CdeBaca says. “We’ve spent a lot of money on reform but [have] not gotten the return on our investment.”

The city is often tangled in high-profile lawsuits over its jails, which are run by the sheriff. In August, the city was sued by Diana Sanchez, who gave birth unassisted while in a jail cell. In September, council approved a $1.55 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by female sheriff’s deputies who alleged that they faced sexual harassment while working at one of the city’s jails.

Patrick Firman, who had been sheriff since 2015, resigned in mid-October. Fran Gomez, a career law enforcement officer, is now serving as interim sheriff.

CdeBaca’s plan to make the position an elected one still needs support from a majority of council, Hancock’s signature and approval from voters.

Other members of council are at least open to exploring the proposal.

“I’m very open to this, but I have a lot of concerns,” Councilman Kevin Flynn said at an October 14 council committee hearing. Flynn is particularly worried about limiting a future pool of candidates for the sheriff’s position to those only from the City and County of Denver.

Leadership at the sheriff’s union, on the other hand, wholeheartedly supports the change.

“We think it’s best for not only us, but for the community,” Michael Jackson, the head of the union that represents sheriff’s deputies, said at the same hearing. “We don’t know what our mission is anymore.”

The mayor’s office is not so keen on the idea of ceding appointment power. “Public safety agencies are led by a police chief, a fire chief and a sheriff, and it seems unnecessary to elect one of them. Making the difficult and important job of managing our jails even more difficult by politicizing the office instead of focusing on good management could lead to dysfunction,” Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, says.

CdeBaca is also considering proposing a charter amendment that would change who gets to choose the Independent Monitor, a current mayoral appointee who heads investigations into law enforcement misconduct. Her office initially considered turning the position into an elected one, but is now discussing making the Independent Monitor a city council appointee.

“That one almost feels like a no-brainer. In its name, it says the independent monitor, but it’s appointed by the mayor,” the councilwoman says.

Marchetta declined to answer multiple questions for this story, but emailed this statement regarding CdeBaca’s proposal to make the Independent Monitor a council-appointed position: “We have not seen any drafted legislation, so it would be premature to comment. When and if a formal proposal is made and advanced to council for formal consideration, we will evaluate the merits or lack thereof.”

CdeBaca is also challenging the mayor’s wide discretion over the city’s budget.

“It’s not only opaque because there are so many agencies; to some degree, it’s intentional. It’s top-down,” she told Westword for a previous article, citing what she considers a complicated budget process. “You don’t want people to see the right thing and ask the right questions.”

After Hancock’s office released its version of the budget for 2020, CdeBaca released her own “Do Better Denver” budget.

“Councilwoman CdeBaca is holding Mayor Michael Hancock accountable...regarding the homelessness crisis by taking aim at his significant expansion in executive-level salaries and administrative costs, while allocations for services and projects have decreased or remained static in the Mayor’s 2020 budget proposals,” read a press release for CdeBaca’s budget.

Some of what she proposed, such as solar-panel subsidies for low-income homeowners and more public restrooms, made it into council president Jolon Clark’s letter to the mayor for what a supermajority, or at least nine members, of council wanted to see added to the city’s budget. Hancock either rejected or held off on commenting on everything else that CdeBaca proposed.

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