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Safe and Sound Denver Member Wins Demand for City Documents

A judge has ordered the release of documents associated with Denver's group-living zoning updates.
A judge has ordered the release of documents associated with Denver's group-living zoning updates.
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A Denver resident fighting proposed group-living updates for the Denver Zoning Code just won access to documents that the City of Denver had refused to turn over.

In a January 11 ruling, Judge Michael J. Vallejos of the Denver District Court ordered the city to release documents related to the group-living proposal that Florence Sebern, a co-founder of the advocacy group Safe and Sound Denver, requested back in August. The group-living update has been in the works for almost three years; Safe and Sound Denver started fighting the zoning changes in the summer of 2020.

"It appears standard procedure in the mayor's office is to obscure their actions and dare residents to challenge in court," says Sebern in a statement on her win. "It's an astounding attitude which forces taxpaying Denverites to expend their hard-earned money twice: once to pay the salaries of those who work for us, and then pay court costs when they are negligent."

City officials say they'll release the documents in the coming days.

If approved by Denver City Council in February, the zoning changes would increase the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home from two to five, and expand the areas of the city in which residential care facilities, such as halfway houses and homeless shelters, can operate. Proponents of the changes say that they're designed to increase equity across Denver, cater to modern-day living situations, and help ameliorate increasing concerns about affordability.

In August, Sebern filed an open-records request with the City of Denver to gain access to documents related to the formation of the Group Living Advisory Committee, which helped city planners craft the proposed group-living changes over the past few years. The committee's membership includes individuals who live in group-living settings, such as cooperative housing, as well as halfway-house and sober-living home operators, among others. After the mayor's office rejected Sebern's request, she obtained legal counsel and sued.

"There was a dramatic imbalance on this committee. A supermajority were service providers, and there was a concerted lack of representation from neighborhoods," Sebern said during a January 7 court hearing regarding her records request.

Mayor Michael Hancock's office had argued that the documents were not releasable either because of attorney-client privilege or deliberative process privilege, which is designed to "protect the frank exchange of ideas and opinions critical to the government's decision-making process where disclosure would discourage such discussion in the future," according to Vallejos's ruling.

Vallejos wound up agreeing with Sebern and her lawyer, Rob Gunning, who stated in court that the request is "about government transparency and the ability of citizens to better understand government officials' decision-making."

The judge ruled that 41 out of the 46 documents requested are releasable, with just five allowed to be withheld under the deliberative-process privilege.

Since summer, Sebern and Safe and Sound Denver have rallied opposition to the zoning-change proposal, encouraging Denver residents to write to councilmembers and city planners, arguing that the proposed changes could lead to decreased safety and a degradation of the character of neighborhoods.

Their actions seem to have had some effect: After a handful of councilmembers raised similar concerns, city planners watered down some aspects of the proposal, including decreasing the number of unrelated adults who can live together.

Denver City Council will be holding a public hearing and a final vote on the group-living zoning amendments on February 8.

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