Denver City Council Mulling Increasing Independence of City Attorney

The Denver City and County Building.
The Denver City and County Building. Brandon Marshall
In 2012, the City of Denver fired Wayne McDonald, a close confidant of Mayor Michael Hancock, after police detective Leslie Branch-Wise accused McDonald of sexual harassment. McDonald ended up suing Hancock and the city for defamation, settling for $200,000. Meanwhile, Branch-Wise got a $75,000 payout from the city in 2013.

What wasn't revealed when the settlements were made was that Hancock had sent suggestive text messages to Branch-Wise while she was on the mayor's security detail in 2011 and 2012, and that city officials knew about them.

"What was frustrating for me is that we find out over the course of time that the city knew those texts existed at the time of two settlements and did not convey that to council at that time," former Denver city councilman Rafael Espinoza told Westword in a March 2019 exit interview, referencing the Denver City Attorney's Office's knowledge of the texts.

Now, some in city council want to ensure that the city attorney truly acts as a lawyer for the city of Denver rather than for the mayor first. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca is pushing for the city attorney, a position that is currently appointed by the mayor, to become a more independent position to “remove that bias that we have now for the executive branch."

At a December 9 council committee hearing, CdeBaca pitched various proposed charter changes that would accomplish this goal, including turning the city attorney into an elected position or having an executive committee made up of elected officials choose one.

During the presentation, city council members expressed interest in the latter option.

"I like the idea of the clients of the city attorney choosing the city attorney," explained Councilwoman Kendra Black.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech also voiced interest in having an executive committee choose the city attorney.

"I do think that there is definitely a strong institutional culture that everybody in the [city attorney's] office is there, first and foremost, to advance the positions of the mayor," Kniech said.

After hearing positive feedback for the executive-committee option, CdeBaca said that she's open to choosing that alternative.

"We can give voice to more people without going all the way to a vote, and I really like that we’re trying to figure out that sweet spot for this one," she said.

Hancock spokesperson Theresa Marchetta says the mayor is still looking into the proposed initiatives. “We followed the discussion as ideas were shared in committee Monday," she writes in a statement to Westword. "We will need to see a proposal to understand the specifics, and conduct our due diligence in assessing the potential impacts it will have on city operations.”

Any charter change would require a majority of support from council and approval by voters in the November 2020 election.

CdeBaca is also pushing for various other charter changes, including one that would make the sheriff's position an elected one and another that she says would increase the independence of the Independent Monitor, who investigates law enforcement misconduct.

Additionally, Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer is proposing another charter change that would require city council's approval for mayoral appointments for heads of city departments.

Proponents note that the proposals are designed to decentralize power in Denver's government, which operates under a strong mayor system.

Update: This story has been updated with a statement from the mayor's office.
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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.