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Op-Ed: Why Did Denver City Council Risk Rejecting Police Contract?

Denver City Council rejected the police contract this fall.
Denver City Council rejected the police contract this fall.
Denver City Council
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It’s time for Denver City Council to stop with the political theater and recommit itself to the business of running the city. Nothing demonstrates this more than the “final act” that played out November 30 when an independent arbitrator arrived at a deal between the city and the police union that included a pay raise for the police while simultaneously saving the city $5 million in 2021. The congratulations for reaching such a serendipitous arrangement fade when we consider that the Hancock administration had presented the same deal to the city council two months earlier, without having exposed the contract and its $5 million in concessions to the uncertainty that exists whenever an independent arbitrator gets involved.

Why did city council want to take such a risk?

We are in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, with entire countries shut down and the global economy teetering on the brink. American cities are in crisis. In fact, due to COVID-19, the City of Denver is facing $190 million in lost revenue in 2021.

This summer, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration renegotiated its soon-to-expire contract with the Denver Police Union. They struck a deal, giving the police an effective pay raise of 2.77 percent, but also saving the city a much-needed $5 million next year by eliminating ten paid holidays and reducing the city’s contribution to the Denver Police Department retirement plans. In September, Denver City Council rejected the agreement, putting the city in the difficult position of no longer having an agreed-upon “best and final” offer to make to the union. Without an offer in place, the agreement was handed off to an independent arbitrator for the decision released on November 30. Luckily, the final contract decided by the arbitrator ended up being identical to the one previously rejected by city council ($5 million in concessions included), but it could have been much, much worse.

So, why did city council reject the original agreement? Was it to demonstrate “fiscal responsibility” by not negotiating an agreement that included a raise during a pandemic? What is fiscally responsible about risking a guaranteed, in-the-bag, $5 million in concessions to independent party arbitration? Nothing. Was it to demonstrate the council’s fidelity with a nationwide movement to transform law enforcement in our cities? Perhaps, but is an irresponsible and risky handoff to an arbitrator really how to invoke meaningful change? Certainly, the council isn't just engaging in political gamesmanship when there is so much more here at stake. Furloughed city workers, the stressful jobs of police officers, the social injustice, the systemic racism, the literal lives lost to the pandemic and the impending budget crush faced by every city seem to call out for precision, purpose, accurate information and decisiveness by our city leaders.

Whatever the motives were behind city council’s decision to recklessly gamble with millions of dollars at a time when we could least afford to wager them, those motives were not in service of the people of Denver. Now more than ever, we need good governing, not wasting time and effort grandstanding at the expense of those who genuinely need our government to step up.

We deserve better than this.

Bess Scully is a lifelong Denver resident. Her background is in legal database design and PTA meetings. She lives in Congress Park with her two teenagers and their German Shepherd, Edith.

Westword occasionally publishes op-eds and essays on matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to editorial@westword.com, where you can also comment on this piece.

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