Denver Council Members Want Power to Approve Sheriff, Police, Fire Chiefs

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen was appointed by Mayor Michael Hancock.
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen was appointed by Mayor Michael Hancock. Kenzie Bruce
Two members of Denver City Council are pushing to give councilmembers the power to approve (or reject) key mayoral appointments, including the sheriff and the fire and police chiefs.

"This is a structural change that makes a lot of sense," says Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who is championing the initiative. "It brings a conversation about these appointees back to the people through their elected reps on city council."

In October, Sawyer, who recently clashed publicly with the head of the city's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, proposed a change to the Denver City Charter that would give council approval authority over mayoral appointments to the heads of eleven departments, including DOTI, Parks and Recreation, and Public Safety, which oversees the fire, police and sheriff departments.

At around the same time, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca began promoting the idea of turning the appointed sheriff position into an elected one. That proposal, which would have brought the City and County of Denver in line with almost all other Colorado counties, which have elected sheriffs, didn't gain significant buy-in from other members of council, however.

Since then, Sawyer and CdeBaca have agreed to focus on Sawyer's original initiative, while adding approval authority over mayoral appointments to head the police, sheriff and fire departments. (The proposal would not affect the mayor's ability to appoint the Independent Monitor, who heads an office that provides oversight for the police and sheriff departments; CdeBaca is working on that issue separately.)

"We came to the conclusion that, while it's not a perfect solution and [CdeBaca] would prefer to continue with an elected-sheriff proposal, this is a middle step," Sawyer says.

Denver's strong-mayor system is one of the most powerful in Colorado. While Colorado Springs also has a strong-mayor system, its council has approval authority over mayoral appointments.

The charter amendment, which would need both council and voter approval, is likely to be heard in a council committee in the next few months, with an eye to getting it on the November 2020 ballot.

Mayor Michael Hancock did not respond to a request for comment. But during the October council committee meeting at which Sawyer unveiled her initial proposal, a representative of his office expressed skepticism.

"There are certainly some concerns about the chilling effect it might have on the process for finding qualified applicants," said Skye Stuart, the mayor's legislative director.

At the same meeting, Councilwoman Kendra Black, while acknowledging that she found Sawyer's proposal compelling, echoed that concern. "It’s just one more added hassle that makes it that much more complicated. To go before thirteen more people is not always fun," Black explained.

Sawyer countered that argument by noting that department heads are political appointees, and candidates "shouldn't have that level of expectation of privacy."

Since then, the city has given her more fodder for her proposal: the massive turnover in public-safety leadership in all departments but the police department, headed by Chief Paul Pazen.

"We started talking about this before all of that happened," Sawyer says. "I think it is indicative of the reasons why we want something like this to happen."

The door started revolving in September, when Hancock announced that Patrick Firman would be stepping down as sheriff.

Firman, who came to Denver from an Illinois corrections job in 2015, was never able to gain the support of the powerful sheriff's deputy union. He also couldn't repair the jail's reputation as a place where embarrassing and costly use-of-force incidents happen far too often. Firman, who's now working in a city job that gives him a six- figure salary, was replaced by interim sheriff Fran Gomez, who would like to be considered for the permanent position of sheriff.

Two months ago, Troy Riggs stepped down as the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees not just the sheriff's department, but also the police and fire departments.

Last month, Eric Tade, the Denver fire chief, announced that he'd be resigning on March 16. Tade's resignation came after a union-hosted firefighters' ball featured sexual pranks for the second year in a row. Tade will continue working for the city as assistant chief.

"I don't recall it ever happening that there were three openings at three agencies," says Al LaCabe, who served as the head of Public Safety under the mayoral administrations of John Hickenlooper and Hancock.

Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who covered City Hall as a journalist, can't remember such a situation, either, and called some friends who've followed Denver politics closely for decades to check. "They cannot recall any time that there were that number of acting appointments at Safety or at any department," Flynn reports.

Turnover during a Denver mayor's final years (Hancock started his third and final term last summer) is not uncommon, since department heads see an expiration date on the administration. But Firman and Tade both resigned because of problems on the job, not because Hancock's time will be up in just over three years.

And that tight schedule might make it tough to find replacements, Flynn suggests: "It would be a difficult ask to have a highly qualified candidate come to Denver or leave a position even if they're in Denver now to accept a position that only has [three years]."

Councilwoman Jamie Torres, one of two councilmembers serving on the newly formed sheriff selection committee, agrees that it could be difficult, but thinks the city can still land a solid choice for permanent sheriff. "You do narrow who is going to be attracted to a position like this at a national level. But I feel like there’s enough opportunity to set a good foundation in three and a half years," says Torres. "I actually feel like we’re going to have some really good candidates before us."

Hancock will make his final decision on a new sheriff within a month.

Given the timeline, Sawyer's proposal won't affect that appointment, but she still sees it as a good move. "It's meant to be guardrails," she explains. "It's not meant for city council to take on some sort of HR role."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.