How New-Look Denver City Council May Give Michael Hancock Hell

New Denver City Council members Candi CdeBaca, Amanda Sandoval, Chris Hinds, Jamie Torres and Amanda Sawyer will change the equation for Mayor Michael Hancock (clockwise from lower left).
New Denver City Council members Candi CdeBaca, Amanda Sandoval, Chris Hinds, Jamie Torres and Amanda Sawyer will change the equation for Mayor Michael Hancock (clockwise from lower left). Candi CdeBaca photo by Gem Reul/Westword file photos
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is still basking in the afterglow of his June 4 runoff election win over consultant and former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis. But those happy feelings are unlikely to last much longer.

As Hancock cruised to victory by an unexpectedly comfortable margin, an earthquake struck the Denver City Council, with the shakeup resulting in new members who could make the mayor's third term a helluva lot more contentious than his previous two.

Three incumbents lost on the 4th, including District 9's Albus Brooks, Hancock's most reliable ally on the council, as well as a pair of frequent supporters in District 5's Mary Beth Susman and District 10's Wayne New. Also on the way out are District 3's Paul López, who ran for Denver Clerk and Recorder because of term limits, and District 1's Rafael Espinoza, a regular Hancock critic, and often a lonely one. (Recall that last year he called for an investigation over improper texts that Hancock sent Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise when she was a member of his security detail circa 2011-2012, but none of his colleagues joined him.)

Such frustrations were contributing factors to Espinoza's decision not to run for re-election. But Amanda Sandoval, a former staffer he endorsed to succeed him, triumphed in the runoff, and she's no one's idea of a Hancock lackey. That's also true of Jamie Torres, who'll follow López, as well as Candi CdeBaca and Chris Hinds, the impending replacements for Brooks and New, respectively. All three were endorsed by the Colorado Working Families Party, a proudly progressive organization that characterized their victory as a "clear rebuke to the city's powers that be" — such as Hancock, presumably. And while Amanda Sawyer, the winner over Susman, can't be classified as doctrinaire, she's no guaranteed rubber stamp, either.

That makes five new faces on a council with thirteen members — a nearly 40 percent turnover. Of the remaining eight, two — District 11's Stacie Gilmore and District 4's Kendra Black — made their fondness for Hancock clear during an appearance at one of his campaign events on May 13, and the participation of District 7's Jolon Clark, the council president, at the mayor's April 29 announcement of a parks tax investment plan suggests a collegial relationship. Likewise, District 8's Christopher Herndon is widely perceived to be in Hancock's corner most of the time.

But District 2's Kevin Flynn, District 6's Paul Kashmann and at-large members Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech are less predictable. Should they join forces with the newcomers on assorted issues, Hancock could find himself facing a formidable nine-vote bloc.

The new members are scheduled to officially begin their new gigs on July 15, but Westword Q&As they completed prior to June 4 offer a preview of what's important to them and how they might clash with Hancock.

Take the urban camping ban, which was originally pushed by Brooks. Hancock defended it early and often on the campaign trail and bashed Giellis for calling for its repeal. But it's reviled by CdeBaca, who wrote, "Under the seven-year-old camping ban, the homelessness issue has only gotten worse, and there have been no policy solutions offered or meaningfully enacted to address the reason people are camping. It just criminalizes the poorest among us." She also pushed back on the Hancock administration's approach to so-called homeless sweeps. One of her bullet points reads: "Rather than send police to homeless people, initiate and deploy a triage mobile service of social workers instead to pipeline homeless into services."

Sawyer, Sandoval, Torres and Hinds didn't specifically address the urban camping ban in their responses — but all expressed some reservations about the way the city is currently handling the homelessness crisis and rejected the notion of standing pat.

Likewise, the five newcomers had plenty of negative things to say about how the City of Denver under Hancock has handled development amid explosive population growth and a booming economy. To the question, "Is development in Denver being done responsibly?," CdeBaca answered with a single word, "No," while Torres and Sandoval focused on the need for increased community involvement and Sawyer called the approach "irresponsible," partly because of what she sees as the de-prioritizing of parks and green space.

For his part, Hinds noted, "I hear time and time again that development is happening TO the city, not FOR the city. The metric I believe in is encapsulated in this question: Does a development enrich the neighborhood around it? If it doesn’t, is there a way to change the development so that it makes the neighborhood better? Examples include: Does the development increase access to parks? Does it increase access to fresh and healthy food? Does it support the twenty-minute-neighborhood concept (as in, is everything a neighborhood needs to thrive accessible within a twenty-minute walk)? Government is supposed to represent people, and we need our elected officials to better represent the needs of residents."

One more bit of bad news for Hancock: The five newly elected city council members all have concerns about his level of power.

Denver boasts a strong-mayor system, which gives Hancock the ability to approve or veto ordinances and resolutions, puts him in charge of the city budget and makes it very difficult, it not impossible, for councilmembers to censure him, as was borne out by the Branch-Wise matter. That structure is fine by Sandoval, as she noted when asked if she feels the city council should have more mechanisms to keep the mayor accountable — but she added that "should voters wish to shift the power structure as currently stipulated, then as a seated city councilperson, I would support the will of the people."

CdeBaca, for her part, thinks such a move is needed. In her words, "I would like to see a charter change that relinquishes power to the council. I think independent monitoring needs to be strengthened, and certain appointments should be made by or approved by a panel, so the mayor does not have unilateral appointment power over such a large number of department and agency heads. I would also like to see city council have more say over the budget."

Hinds doesn't go that far, but he feels that "there are items that currently exist in Denver's charter that city council is not currently exercising," and adds, "Denver would benefit from some additional checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government." Stresses Torres: "I don’t believe any elected official in Denver should exist outside the law or of consequence, so I would want to look at all options available to hold the mayor accountable." And Sawyer maintains, "The mechanisms to hold our mayor accountable exist. What is lacking is the backbone to do so."

Celebrate while you can, Mayor Hancock. Because it could be a long four years.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts