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Denver Voters Could Give Council Approval of Key Mayoral Appointees

Should Denver City Council get approval authority over key mayoral appointments?
Should Denver City Council get approval authority over key mayoral appointments?
Denver City Council

A majority of Denver City Council supports asking voters if council should have approval authority over key mayoral appointees, guaranteeing that a measure seeking this charter change will land on the November 2020 ballot.

"This proposal gives Denver a voice through their independently elected council representatives," Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said during a June 9 council committee hearing, right before the proposal was sent on to the full council.

Westword has confirmed that at least seven councilmembers will approve putting the initiative on the ballot, which is enough support to ensure that residents get to vote on it in November.

If approved by voters, the initiative would create a change in the city charter, giving councilmembers the authority to approve mayoral appointments for fourteen key leadership positions.

Currently, those appointments are solely up to the mayor; this proposal would shift some power from the executive branch in Denver, a city that has a strong-mayor form of government. Other cities across the country with a strong-mayor government are split on this issue. Some, like Colorado Springs and Baltimore, require council confirmation of mayoral appointments; others, like Boston and Philadelphia, do not.

At the June 9 hearing, Sawyer said that the proposal "respects the strong-mayor form of government," but also would "bring more balance to system."

Still, she pointed out that the initiative would only require a proposed appointment to come before council if a member requests it. If all councilmembers agree on the choice, then there would be no hearing and the appointment would be finalized within thirty days.

Council still wouldn't have the ability to weigh in on firing decisions of appointees, nor would it be able to stop the mayor from appointing interim departmental heads when vacancies arise. Current permanent appointees would not be subject to the approval process. And outside of fourteen key mayoral appointees — the heads of the fire, police and sheriff departments, as well as the director of Public Safety that oversees them; the city attorney; the head of Community Planning and Development; and other top positions — other appointees, such as department deputy leadership, would not be subject to council approval.

Although Mayor Hancock's office has not responded to requests for comment on the initiative, mayoral staffers have expressed skepticism at public hearings. "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, last fall.

Some councilmembers have the same worry.

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"My principal concern is whether the prospect of having to go through a politicized council confirmation process would keep top candidates from being recruited if their current positions would be in jeopardy should they be rejected," says Councilman Kevin Flynn, who's still undecided on the initiative.

"Not intending any criticism of the individual choices here, but the recent appointments of the president of the University of Colorado and the superintendent of Denver Public Schools highlight this problem. They were the sole finalists because the others who would have made the list did not want their identities disclosed should they not be chosen," Flynn adds.

But even if other members of council who are on the fence vote against referring the initiative to the ballot, supporters currently have the votes they need.

Sawyer and fellow councilmember Candi CdeBaca, both of whom have clashed publicly with the Hancock administration, have been working on this proposal since last fall. CdeBaca originally proposed a charter change that would have turned the sheriff position into an elected one; when she didn't get strong buy-in from other members of council, she teamed up with Sawyer on the current plan.

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