Dennis Gallagher, Watchdog Auditor, on Denver's Past, Present and Future

When Dennis Gallagher steps down as city auditor in nine weeks, at the end of his third and final term, his departure will mark the end of one of the most impressive — and long-lived — careers in elected office in state history. Gallagher was an obscure thirty-year-old speech professor at Regis College when he decided to run for state representative in 1970. His determination to walk his district and learn about constituents’ concerns firsthand helped him win that election and many since.

The son of a Denver firefighter and grandson of Irish immigrants, Gallagher is as comfortable presiding over the blarney of St. Patrick’s Day parades as he is slinging Shakespeare at bewildered lobbyists. Over the course of 24 years in the state legislature, he proved to be an adept advocate for seniors and working stiffs, immigrants and taxpayers of all stripes; the 1982 state amendment that bears his name effectively limited government’s ability to hike residential property taxes long before the TABOR Amendment was a gleam in Douglas Bruce’s eye. During two terms on Denver City Council, Gallagher fought hard for historic preservation in rapidly changing northwest Denver, including tough negotiations over redevelopment of the former Elitch’s site. He became known as the “Mayor of North Denver” — and actually ran for mayor in a crowded race in 1987, finishing third behind incumbent Federico Peña and challenger Don Bain.

But Gallagher’s crowning achievement may be the way he has transformed his current job from political theater to a machine for better government. The city auditor’s post has long been regarded as a path to the mayor’s office, as it was for Bill McNichols and Wellington Webb. Gallagher renounced any such ambition and, during his first term, campaigned successfully for a charter amendment that would allow his office to move away from bookkeeping functions to full-scale performance audits of other city agencies. Since the office revamp, the “Denver model” for auditing city government has attracted national attention for its unusual degree of independence, sometimes blunt findings and criticisms, and surprisingly high rate of compliance with the auditor’s recommendations for improvement.

Gallagher’s successor, Timothy O’Brien, has vowed to protect and expand the office’s watchdog role. A former state auditor and member of the city’s audit committee, O’Brien was heavily outspent in the race by outgoing city councilman Chris Nevitt, whom Gallagher endorsed. His surprise victory last week, reminiscent of Gallagher’s own upset win in a three-way race in 2003, suggests that voters want the office to continue to perform hard-nosed audits and stay free of political entanglements.

During his time in the auditor’s chair, Gallagher has butted heads with deep-in-denial spendthrift airport officials and puzzled over overtime pay at the Denver Sheriff’s Department. A thwarted probe of alleged misuse of client gift cards at Denver Human Services sent him back to the legislature to push for a bill, HB 1370, that would require the agency to make its records available to his office. His staff has questioned whether the city’s much-reviled photo-radar program has had any demonstrable impact on public safety and whether spending $63 million on the Road Home program has made any real dent in the city’s homeless problem.

Under Gallagher, the auditor’s office has also helped agencies in distress, pushing for more staff for the city’s beleaguered marijuana regulators and needed funds to fix a potentially serious security vulnerability in Denver’s information-technology system. But at 75, his term on watch winding down, Gallagher is going out swinging, with a recent “white paper” on DIA spending and an ongoing crusade against the expansion of I-70 to ten lanes in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. We caught up with him at his office, along with his communications director, Denis Berckefeldt — who recently put together a 67-minute documentary about his boss, Gallagher: One of a Kind — for a conversation about Denver’s past, present and future.

Alan Prendergast: You’re completing a twelve-year run as Denver auditor, during which the mission and authority of the office has changed significantly. How important was the 2006 charter amendment, in your view, and how has that affected the city’s operations in general?

Dennis Gallagher:
I think it was very important for us and the city. It included the right to do performance audits, which we’d never had before. And we’d always been dinged in peer review of the auditor’s office, a little check on our record, because we’d been doing payroll and accounting. That’s an administrative function. Now we can audit payroll and accounting; it had been a sort of conflict of interest for me. If I had been unscrupulous, I could have written myself a check and nobody would have known. 

The other thing that was good about the charter amendment: Mayor Hickenlooper actually gave up some power. He appointed all the members of the audit committee for the city. Now the mayor appoints two, city council appoints two, I appoint two and serve as chair — and it’s worked out very well. The members are outstanding. Some of the questions the administration members ask — if the administration heard them, they’d yank them off the committee. But that’s what it’s all about: full disclosure and transparency.

Let’s talk about transparency. One of the features of what’s become known as the “Denver model” for performance audits is that you’re supposed to have “unfettered access” to the data from various agencies to assess how they’re doing. But that hasn’t always been the case. You had to abandon an audit of Denver Human Services because of the agency’s refusal to provide certain information, citing privacy concerns, and something similar came up in your audit of Denver’s Road Home program. Is there an ongoing issue with transparency in city government? Do you believe House Bill 1370 will fix the problem?

It’s certainly going to fix it for Human Services. We amended the state law to allow us to have access to those records. There’s always going to be a tension between the administration, the agency and the auditors. Nobody wants to have the dirty linen aired in public. People get so defensive about the feedback the audit function provides; it takes forever to actually get to the information. There are a few that conveniently lose things.

Agencies are required to respond to your office’s recommendations. But you have no authority to make them implement changes. What’s your sense of how responsive agencies have been to your calls for reform or improvement?

Overall, they’ve been pretty good. There are some agencies that are not as good as others, but at least now the agency has to respond to the questions raised in the audit. Most recently, we did the sheriff’s audit, where we were beginning to wonder if the department could play football and chew gum at the same time. We made a lot of very simple, commonsense suggestions, but they’re waiting for the “real experts,” whom they’ve hired at quite a large expense, to make their recommendations. You get pushback that way. We only have the bully pulpit. I raise hell around town, and hopefully the councilmembers and the mayor realize they want to move this agency to do a better job.

There were several instances in the response from the sheriff’s department of officials saying they “agree in part” with your findings.

We call those “shrouded responses.” They’ll say they agree, but in the written material, they don’t agree at all; they think Gallagher’s just being mean. We had a lot of pushback from the hospital, too, when we looked at [Denver Health and Hospital Authority] ambulance response times. They went to Johns Hopkins and paid three or four hundred thousand dollars to do a similar audit to what we were doing to say that everything was fine. But everything was not fine. Ambulances weren’t getting to sites on time. Two ambulance drivers having coffee at Common Grounds told me they were given two more minutes to get to heart-attack victims. In the contract, there was an exact time they had agreed to, but no one was checking the contract, double-checking to see how they were doing. Now they meet quarterly [to review response times], as requested by the audit, and it’s working out just fine.

Your office has clashed repeatedly with Denver International Airport officials over the rising cost of the south-terminal redevelopment program — which, by your calculations, has ballooned from $500 million to $721 million in the past five years. This is an agency with its own revenue stream and little oversight, it seems, from city council; are you troubled by that arrangement? Do you believe some structural change is necessary to bring airport spending under control?

I am troubled by it. It should be a concern to mayor and council. Hickenlooper told me when he was first elected, “I would like to see an airport authority take care of this.” Baloney. I think the real reason they want an authority is so that the auditor won’t be looking over their shoulders.

The attitude of the airport seems to be, “These are not real tax dollars, so we can treat them differently.” Baloney. I think money extracted unwillingly from the citizens, regardless of whether it’s a tax or a fee you pay at the airport, should be looked after. There’s nothing that brings cynicism more to the people than mismanaged and mishandled funds, and that’s what we’re seeing.

Gallagher is as comfortable presiding over the blarney of St. Patrick’s Day parades as he is slinging Shakespeare at bewildered lobbyists.

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It’s like that line from Macbeth, when Macbeth is determining what kind of a time frame he should use to kill Duncan: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it be done quickly.” Maybe they’re just trying to get it done quickly. Citizens can live with that, as long as you don’t try to shuffle funds around and say, “It really isn’t that much.”

We have the Road Home program, which your office says has spent $63 million without having any real means of assessing the impact of that spending on homelessness. We have the jail operations of the Denver Sheriff’s Department, which you found have been poorly managed, with officials ignoring many recommendations for improvements. What city agency do you consider the most dysfunctional, or the one you would most like to see revamped from the ground up?

I think the sheriff’s group certainly would be in there. Public Safety every now and again. We have to continually cajole and persuade the agencies that this is a good way to go, this is a good business practice.

You’ve been highly critical of CDOT’s plan for widening I-70 through northeast Denver while taking it below street level, calling it a waste of money and something that will only further divide the neighborhoods involved. How do you respond to the argument that this project is needed to accommodate regional growth?

The waste of money I see there is a total drain on all of the state highway infrastructure. I’m amazed that some of our colleagues in the legislature from the rural areas are not complaining about that project. I know people wonder, “What has that got to do with the Denver auditor’s office?” I think whenever you see a waste of money, that’s something the auditor’s office should raise a fuss about. 

I remember as a kid riding my bicycle through those neighborhoods — pre-highway. I think it’s just going to wreck the neighborhoods. You should read the study on the health impacts, even putting it underground with a little lid over it. I think it’s a disaster, and it’s going to make a wasteland. They’re taking out fifty businesses, forty homes — and the reports we’re getting are that people are getting out of the cars. They’re not riding as much as we think they are. I just think ten lanes is overkill, and we’ll rue the day we ever did it. 

Denis Berckefeldt: We have looked at this in depth. The data that CDOT is using to justify expanding to ten lanes is 2003 traffic numbers, and the modeling is outdated. We also have significant surveys nationwide that indicate whatever highway and transit agencies have predicted the usage would be, it’s always higher than reality. It’s trending downward significantly. We’re simply saying you can’t justify ten lanes because you don’t have the data to back it up. 

Dennis Gallagher: I’m just puzzled that everybody thinks this is a done deal. I hope it isn’t.

Do you think it’s a good idea to embark on a public-private partnership to fund the project?

When I hear the words “public-private” anymore, it’s usually the public that pays and the private company that gets the benefits. Those of us who live in north Denver, who’ve been betrayed by the highway department when they slashed through north Denver in the mid-1960s, are very suspicious of the promise that they’re not going to go past I-25 [with the I-70 expansion]. Baloney. They want to go clear into Wheat Ridge. I feel like Cassandra at the gates of Troy: Don’t let the horse in. We’ve got to keep speaking up, I think.

As a student of history, do you have particular concerns about the kind of growth and change the city is experiencing right now?

This reminds me of what happened immediately after World War II. Denver had a height limitation on the buildings — I think the D&F Tower was as high as you could go. As soon as they did away with that, they began tearing down all these beautiful old buildings and putting up things that nobody could think of as beautiful at all. I hand out to every employee who comes to the auditor’s office the Athenian oath: “Thus in all these ways will we transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” I think we’re leaving the city more ugly than we found it, and it’s as dramatic as it was after World War II.

A lot of neighborhood groups seem to feel that the character and heritage of the area is being ignored in the rush to put in larger and higher-density developments. What can they do about that?

I remember [former city councilwoman] Polly Flobeck had a big problem in Hilltop with the same thing, and they got an overlay that says you can’t do it in these certain areas. The neighbors got organized; they got overlays; they said they would like to see a percentage of brick so those of us who still have bricks don’t feel so lonely. People are not happy. To bring in a big, bulky building where a machine-gun thing could pop up at the top — I don’t think it’s very neighborly.

Looking back over your career in elected office — the Gallagher amendment, your time on city council, three terms as auditor — where do you think you’ve been most effective?

I’m certainly proud of the Gallagher amendment. That was one of my better days in the legislature. It comes up all the time. This is just a small thing — I didn’t have a lot to do with it — but I came out and said I didn’t need a study to know that the Denver stock show moving to Aurora was not a good thing. I’m proud of that, that I said I would never sign that contract. I think that’s something that I will be pleased about.

And this is a small thing, too, but I love our libraries. A few years ago, during the downturn, the libraries had to cut hours and cut staff. They were tempted to go to a district, a district that the mayor and the council wouldn’t have control of. And the people of Denver have sacrificed and spent millions on these libraries. I fought them on that. The Denver Public Library is Denver’s library, and it shouldn’t be some library district insulated from the elected officials of Denver. During a crisis of faith, they wanted to leave the city, and I said, “Don’t let them succeed.” And I’m glad I helped fight that.

You’ve used the office of an independent, elected auditor as a bully pulpit. Some would say that you’re doing what a robust watchdog press is supposed to do: hold government accountable for its actions. What do you think about that comparison?

I’m honored that some citizens would think of us that way. With the press changing and everything going electronic, that was a natural adaptation for this office. And I hope the next auditor will do the same.

Denis Berckefeldt: This auditor, when he was elected, indicated that he was not going to be running for mayor. I can’t tell you the number of calls I get, people asking, “Why won’t Dennis run for mayor?”

"When I hear the words 'public-private' anymore, it’s usually the public that pays and the private company that gets the benefits."

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Why aren’t you running for mayor?

Dennis Gallagher: I’ll never not be involved. But as St. Paul said, “I’ve run the course.”

I think it helps the relationship between the mayor and the auditor to know that I am not running for mayor, never have been. Toward the end, Hickenlooper and I had a great deal of trust.

Are you done with politics?

I was just up at the legislature this morning, and I thought, “This is sort of fun. Maybe I should reconsider this.” But I don’t think I will. I’m the vice-chair of the James Joyce Reading Society for greater metropolitan Denver, and I might try to write some short stories that have been floating around up here for eons. But I’m still going to be active and trying to mentor people, younger political enthusiasts who want to come have coffee with me at Common Grounds. I’m sort of the Professor Chips standing around; he was a Latin and Greek teacher, too.

We’ll see. I’ve had a grand run, and I can’t thank the people of Denver enough for letting me be their servant. I’m rereading this book by Rabbi Manuel Laderman, who actually wrote a love letter to his congregation. I’m going to write one to the people before I finish.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast