Council representative Stacie Gilmore
will likely become Denver City Council president this month, and she already has plans. "I really want to try to bring us together as a body," she explains. "We’re thirteen individual people, and we represent different parts of the city. How we can operate more together on a lot of big issues and have more communication, more planning and time for us to actually think about what we’re trying to do?"
Gilmore, who represents far northeast Denver and has served as pro-tem — essentially the vice president of council — for two years, says she has enough votes to ensure that she's chosen as council president at the July 20 council meeting. The president runs the full-body meetings, determines committee membership and sits on all committees.
Gilmore will be taking over for Jolon Clark
, who has served as president for two years. Jamie Torres
, a first-term councilwoman who represents west Denver, is likely to become pro-tem.
Councilmembers sometimes clash over competing interests, but Gilmore thinks they could get more done with unity. "We could actually, right now, at this point in history, change policy and change laws to create a more anti-racist, anti-oppressionist structure in our city," she says.
Gilmore joined those who took to the streets during the George Floyd protests in calling for reallocation of money from traditional law enforcement into more community-oriented resources. She also wants council to start expecting more from the executive branch, since Denver has a strong-mayor form of government.
"Where it comes to the budget, we have to have a lot more detail, a lot more transparency, and a lot more engagement by both agencies and the mayoral administration during this 2021 budget period," Gilmore says,
In Denver, the mayor's office presents the budget to council every year for a yes-or-no vote; there's room for just minor modifications before the final vote in September. "We can’t have the administration and agencies creating the 2021 budget in a vacuum and then expecting council to just go along with that," Gilmore explains. "We need to start that this month, and really start understanding what is the line-item detail that city council expects to receive in specific agencies’ budgets going into the 2021 budget season."
Gilmore's emphasis on placing more checks and balances on the executive branch fits with other council moves over the last year, as members introduced initiatives that aim to pull some power away from the mayor
The last few months have been challenging, acknowledges Clark, who's leaving the presidency as most council presidents have over the past decade, after two one-year terms.
"We’re in times where there isn’t a clear answer, there isn’t a clear feeling," Clark says of council during this difficult period, with a pandemic and with civil-rights protesters taking over chambers. "It’s been very difficult to navigate and very time-consuming with members of council."
As council president during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark helped create a framework for some councilmembers to participate in meetings virtually; language in the city charter requires at least a minimum in-person participation. As Colorado began to gain some control over the spread of COVID-19 in the state, however, council began reconvening as a full body in its chambers.
Attendance by members of the public, many wanting to speak out on police matters, increased, too. During the full council meeting on June 22, dozens of protesters came into council chambers and refused to let council work on its planned agenda until all of those who'd come to speak had been heard. Two and a half hours later, council finally got started on its regular business.
A week later, Clark decided to cancel the June 29 meeting
over concerns that the increased attendance and lack of social distancing put members of council, city staff and the public at risk. In response, advocates for police abolition or reform gathered outside of the City and County Building of Denver on June 30 at a "people's town hall," during which they criticized council for what they characterized as canceling the meeting to silence critics.
"I get that from the outside, but that’s completely not true," Clark says, pointing out that for four weeks, council had been particularly accommodating in allowing people to speak.
"The thing that changed was, I said, 'Okay, let’s get back to [public comment], but can we please social-distance and please follow public health orders?' People refused to do that. For five or six hours, a hundred of us were in that room," Clark recalls. "It was a situation where we just couldn’t keep people COVID-safe, and that necessitated re-looking at how we do things."
Now Clark is spending his last days as council president working on a way to allow the public to participate virtually at Denver City Council meetings.
Gilmore, who supports increasing the ways in which members of the public can participate in meetings, says that those calling for change also need to stay healthy.
"I think it’s a delicate balance, because when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and people don’t want to wear a mask and are packing a closed room, we need all those protesters," she says. "We are never going to be able to make the changes that we want to see, especially around de-funding or reallocating safety budgets into our communities, without them. And I don’t want to be putting them in a position that’s possibly going to give them COVID."
There was no Denver City Council meeting on July 6, because it was an official city furlough day to cope with COVID-19's impact on the budget. The next full council meeting is set for July 13.