Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The Meter's Running

No one lit a candle to mark the one-year anniversary of Denver's world-class fiasco -- but plenty of people are still feeling burned. On January 31, 2002, John Oglesby, then-director of parking management for the city, pronounced that in keeping with Denver's status as a "world-class city," the Department of Public Works would soon expand the operational hours of downtown parking meters from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., expand the parking meters' conquest of neighborhoods far from downtown, and expand the city coffers by increasing the cost of parking at the choicest, most world-class meters to 25 cents for every ten minutes.

Nine months later, Oglesby himself got the boot.

In the meantime, neighborhoods along Broadway successfully fought back against attempts to raise the hours and cost of their meters, and Cherry Creek hammered out a compromise that would introduce paid parking to that pricey neighborhood through classy pay stations -- which have yet to appear. And those who worked hardest to find common ground with the city? Well, the good folks of LoDo, who were promised pay stations over a year ago and have been told they may never see them, are scorching mad.

Lower downtown is the city's sacrifice zone, with Platte Valley loft projects eating up lots and the Union Station renovation eating up spaces, and meter readers (or VCAs, as parking management calls them) feeding off those sorry drivers who manage to find spaces in LoDo -- nickel, dime and quartering them to death. "I cannot emphasize the negative effect this new policy has had on my business," one LoDo business owner recently wrote Mayor Wellington Webb. "The aggressive tactics of the meter readers to ticket parking-meter offenders borders on harassment. On Saturday, January 4, ten of our clients received tickets for spending over two hours at a meter, sometimes with the meter reader standing over the meter waiting for it to expire.... These clients don't want to come back to lower downtown."

Unless, perhaps, it's to get revenge by applying to become Denver's director of parking management, a Career Service Authority position that pays between $5,121 and $8,173 a month. According to the current posting on the city's Web site: "This position will be responsible for planning, developing and monitoring the city's parking structures, surface parking lots and parking meters. This includes supervising professional and clerical staff, determining priorities, objectives and goals, developing and implementing policies, planning and managing the budget, and negotiating and resolving parking issues."

The job listing cites certain "minimum qualifications," including a B.A. with major coursework in "civil engineering, urban planning, public administration or a related field," but as it has with politically touchy hires before, the city's willing to take "appropriate experience" instead -- say, counting quarters at a Black Hawk casino. "Candidates meeting the minimum qualifications will be asked to complete Critical Incident Response consisting of six questions," the description continues, which will be reviewed and scored by "Subject Matter Experts."

Those experts, of course, should be the people of metro Denver, who are now subsidizing the city council's pay raise with their parking fines. But since the hiring process is in the hands of the city -- and not even a "world-class" city, at that -- there's no reason to expect that residents will have a role other than asking a few questions of their own. For example:

1) How many investigations does it take to get rid of one director of parking management?

Answer: Three -- one by the city auditor, one by the Denver district attorney, and one by KPMG, the auditing firm hired by Public Works to collate and bind all the bad news already apparent to everyone else.

2. To which candidate did Oglesby donate $150?

Answer: City councilwoman Debbie Ortega, who represents LoDo and is now running for city auditor.

3. What is Denver's greatest parking export to the outside world?

Answer: The Denver boot, now seen clamping cars in Paris, London, Chicago and all the more cosmopolitan cities.

4. How much parking could you have gotten with the $20 you're now paying for that ticket?

Answer: At $1.50 an hour, you'd be able to buy thirteen hours and twenty minutes of parking -- assuming you could find free meters and remembered to move your car every two hours.

5. Can you explain the hours and days when LoDo meters are operational?

Answer: If the average councilmember can't do it, why should you?

6. Do you have friends in the cash-station business, as John Oglesby did?

Answer: If so, send them to LoDo.

Bonus true-or-false question: According to the KPMG audit, "the parking division is in the process of establishing a dedicated customer-service function."

Answer: True and false. That line appears on page 17 of the audit. But asked the question earlier this week, a Public Works spokeswoman responded, "It's an excellent recommendation, and we are researching that now. But no, we do not have that in place, because there's going to be a lack of money and resources."

After all, the KPMG audit -- at $38,000 and counting -- cost at least as much as a customer-service rep, a position that the audit identified as key. But, hey, didn't Oglesby have a supervisor or two?

It's Magic!

How does Denver City Council get an 18 percent pay raise?

It pulls the Colorado Constitution out of a hat.

On Tuesday, councilmembers on the city's Special Charter Revision Committee lamented that they'd really had no choice but to approve that 18 percent raise, as well as a hefty 11.5 percent hike for the next mayor, the night before. According to the state constitution, which authorized the formation of the City and County of Denver in 1902, the salaries of elected officers must be set "by ordinance" or "within limits fixed by the charter."

For the first seventy years, the Denver City Charter called for voters approving -- or disapproving -- all suggested pay raises for elected officials. After a third defeat, Mayor Tom Currigan resigned, saying he couldn't afford to be mayor anymore. So in 1973, the charter was amended to allow city council to set salaries -- as long as it follows a labyrinthine process that requires the city's Career Service Authority to study compensation of elected officials in comparable cities and then present its findings to council. The CSA offered up those figures last fall; on Monday night, councilmembers decided they had no choice but to raise the salaries of their successors to $73,512.

No choice, that is, but to have proposed a charter amendment that would have asked voters to approve a more reasonable system, one capable of recognizing a city's sorry financial situation, for example. (Denver's currently hacking $44 million from its budget.) But at Tuesday's meeting, and despite a last-second proposal by Councilman Dennis Gallagher, the committee decided that such a noble measure would have to wait for another day -- and another city council.

There's certainly no shortage of candidates willing to run for jobs that paid only $62,304 until Monday's vote. Or would-be mayors -- eight, at the last official count -- willing to do the job for $122,784, rather than the $136,920 the victor will now receive.

Without the possibility of a raise, though, "Where is the incentive to be outstanding?" wondered former councilwoman Cathy Donohue, now a city employee in the Career Service system, where incentives abound.

"If you need an incentive, I think that's questionable," responded Gallagher.

Channel 8, a division of the city's Office of Television and Internet Services, filmed the discussion -- even though OTIS has recently cut back on its roster of televised committee meetings. That got councilmembers almost as cranky as they were last summer, when they found out that OTIS was producing an expensive documentary on Denver since 1990, a time span that just happened to coincide with Webb's years in office. The documentary was dumped, but -- more magic! -- on Monday, a new project debuted on Channel 8. The seventeen-minute The Magic of Government, part of a still-authorized package linked to the May 6 election, uses a cheesy magic-show motif to explain to voters that while government may seem "beyond comprehension," it's really quite sensible if you have a lot of trick boxes, scarves and cards proving that the mayor can be a king or a queen. Or a jackass. (Channel 8 has to do something to stir up the ratings now that Johns TV is on hiatus until there's action again on Colfax.)

Mostly, the production shows that $32,000 can disappear into thin air while telling you little about government (the accompanying Web site is much better) other than the fact that on top of the box containing city agencies, on top of the box containing city council, even on top of the box containing the mayor, is a box with the citizens of Denver. Even if they've been cut off at the legs.

Why not let the voters approve salaries again? They'd know how to take into account current economic climes.

When Donohue was elected to council in 1975, she earned $7,500 -- exactly what she was earning as an executive secretary at an oil company. Today, she said, that position would pay about what a councilmember earns.

Today, responded Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, "that secretary would be out of work."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun