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Lottery Lunacy

To determine which groups get what public parks during the Democratic National Convention in August, the city of Denver held its first ever “extraordinary event” park permitting lottery yesterday afternoon – a cheery little raffle that I will be referring to from this point forward as the Clusterfuck of Democracy.

To be fair, it must be noted that the city was in a difficult position. Ever since last January, when Denver was chosen as the location for the Democratic confab, the cantankerous activist group Recreate 68 Alliance has been loudly proclaiming its intent to advocate major protests throughout the week, protests it hoped to stage in many of the city’s beautiful parks. Then right-wingers from the Christian Defense Coalition and anti-abortion group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust said that they, too, wanted to use parks near downtown for protest events. And don’t forget all the party-line Democrats, city boosters and chili cook-off folks interested in hosting high-profile shindigs in the same parks.

I don’t know what was going through the minds of the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation permitting folks last September when this ugly throng showed up at their office for the earliest application submittal date, but I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of, Oh, shit. Processes do exist to deal with competing park-permit requests, but any decision to pick one group over another during the DNC would have been seized upon by the loser as political exclusion. Hello, fiery press releases. Hello, First Amendment lawsuits.

So the city figured it could solve the problem of choice by not choosing at all. Instead, it would use a lottery. The decision would be determined by the luck of the draw, pure chance. Then the pissy protesters couldn’t complain about the outcome – or at least they couldn’t complain much. Officials set up a new application deadline of March 14. By that date, they’d received 215 individual permit requests for a dozen city-owned parks for the period between August 15 to 31.

Many of those applicants, along with journalists, attorneys and civil servants, crammed into a conference room at the Webb Building at 1 p.m. yesterday. The room was equipped with elaborate charts breaking down parks and days; laid carefully across a row of tables were small cards featuring each applicant’s name and request. These were to be dumped into a clear plastic box and pulled out by a Vanna White -- played awkwardly by a male grad student. All of this, beamed mayoral aide Chantel Unfug, would make the process a “fair, transparent, equitable lottery.”

And this is how we got to the Clusterfuck of Democracy. The problem is, when you set up a game of chance, people start playing the numbers. This became apparent when Vanna read off the names of the contending applicants for Cuernavaca Park as he put them in the box. Larry Hales, Mark Cohen, Zoe Williams -- all folks associated with R-68. Pro-lifer Danielle Versluys had listed her own name under Prayer for Change, but also had members of her family -- Ron, Alice and Alison -- submit their own applications, hoping that a deluge of Versluys could help them beat the odds.

City officials had reportedly called the groups that had submitted multiple requests through different applicants and asked them to voluntarily withdraw the duplicates -- to no avail. Why would people who’ve already devoted over a year of their lives to these events put themselves in a tougher a position to gain permits? In the name of fairness? Yeah, right.

Applicants had taken further advantage of the loophole by soliciting for parks and days they didn’t actually care about. Does David Nichol really want to hold his “DNC Meditation Retreat” at the Denver Skatepark? Does Adam Jung of Tent State University really want to set up camp in Fishback Landing Park along the Platte? Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to apply. And who knows, you might land a big one – like Civic Center Park, with its 25,000 person capacity.

As the names were pulled out for each day and assembled on the board, the event took on the feel of a March Madness betting parlor. “I kind of feel like I’m working the brackets,” Versluys joked. Reporters and applicants took tallies of which straw-man applicant was beholden to which group, and who could assemble a wide-enough block of days at a park to host their events.

“I always play three or four dollars on the Powerball,” laughed Glenn Spagnuolo of R-68, who yelled out “Shit!” when the prayer folk scored one of his key days.

When it came time for the Civic Center drawing, the R-68 representatives became noticeably edgy. Their group’s relevancy as an umbrella organizer for leftist protests hinges on their holding park permits. Central to their plans is the Civic Center, which they hope to fill with booths, food, demonstrations and a possible free concert toe entertain the tens of thousands of protesters that they insist will show up. But when longtime activist Barbara Cohen marched up to the table to inspect the cards, she found R-68’s missing from the line-up. Officials insisted that it was a simple mistake, and scrambled to search their records.

This gave part two of the Cohen clan, Mark, plenty of face time with the television cameras. How convenient, he proclaimed, that the city would fail to include the lottery cards for R-68, a group that Denver officials would love to see not obtain permits. Suddenly, the open and honest lottery became tinged with suggestions of a conspiracy – just the type of anti-free speech conspiracy that R-68 can use to fan the flames of protest.

Although Spagnuolo refrained from screaming “Attica! Attica!,” he certainly appeared to be enjoying the mayhem as city officials darted in and out of the room with documents, diligently triple-cross-referencing each application. The wait stretched on for an hour. I went out, got a coffee, came back.

I waited another hour with the left- and right-wing protesters, all of us staring at the big board of days. With several parks still undetermined, it was too early to tell who was winning and who was losing. But it was clear that the anti-abortion activists would end up holding certain slots that the R-68 protesters would like, and vice versa. When this was all done, would either side be willing to do a swap out for spots, similar to a sports draft?

“We’d have to see,” said Versluys. “We have most of our days we want. But it’s possible.”

Spagnuolo seemed tentatively open to the idea as well. “We’d have to get together with our group first and see if that’s how we want to go,” he said. He pointed out that the city could have foregone this whole Clusterfuck of Democracy if it would’ve just let rival applicants use a moderator to work out agreements among themselves last year.

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After three hours of waiting, Unfug announced that the whole process would have to be postponed until Thursday so that city officials can make sure everything is accurate and fair.

That reminded me of something Unfug had said at the start of Clusterfuck, when she noted that this wasn’t the first time the city had held a lottery for an event space. The last time was a hundred years ago, right before the 1908 Democratic National Convention, when two parties applied for the same building.

“And that was solved by a shoot-out.” Unfug explained.

Shoot-out? That’s the type of fair-and-balanced system I’d be willing to bet on. –Jared Jacang Maher

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