Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The Smile High City

Will the last one to leave City Hall please turn out the lights?

In these fiscally strapped times, there's no reason to waste pennies on useless utilities. And besides, it's only appropriate that Denver's next mayor be left in the dark.

The men and women who would be mayor are making lots of grand promises now, approaching government as a civics project, drawing their good-government plans on a clean slate. But in July 2003, the successful candidate will inherit a city that's far from a tabula rasa. The new mayor can make only a relative handful of appointments: about fifty full-time slots, as well as assorted spots on boards and commissions. At the same time, that new mayor will inherit 10,436 city employees who fall under the Career Service Authority (not to mention thousands of law-enforcement workers overseen by the Denver Civil Service Commission) and an increasingly meager treasury from which to pay them. Never mind funding all those fancy-shmancy proposals intended to dazzle voters.

When the new mayor realizes this, he or she is unlikely to be in a happy zone.

If you ever want to change your world quickly, try re-arranging your face. No, not plastic surgery. Smile. Notice what happens to your body. Something shifts physiologically, as smiling has a predictable effect on the production of endorphins in the brain, which are the 'feel good' body chemicals. Smiling actually changes our brain chemistry. It's amazing, and it happens every time we do it. We are the only species that has the ability to smile. - from city Change Manager Rika Mead's "Creating a Happy Zone," in the June 2002 Spotlight, the CSA newsletter

Four months from the end of Mayor Wellington Webb's third term, his fifty-odd appointees are securing their own futures -- some far from Denver, some inside the city. Wayne Cauthen, Webb's chief of staff, is leaving his $128,112 post to take a job as city manager of Kansas City -- and if he thought dealing with Denver's city council was trying, just wait until he gets a load of that barbecued bunch in Missouri. Next month, Andrew Hudson, the mayor's press secretary, will begin carrying water as senior manager of public affairs for the American Water Works Association, whose headquarters are just south of the city. Still others are scrambling to make sure they stay in Denver -- and on the public payroll -- by applying for CSA jobs.

Some of Webb's appointees were already Career Service employees when he tapped them for his team, and they will retain their CSA status after he goes. Amy Bourgeron, for example, had a CSA slot in the Denver Department of Public Works. After Public Works director Bruce Baumgartner took over as manager of aviation, he brought Bourgeron to DIA, where she served temporarily as deputy manager; Webb later made her a political appointee. But this past fall, the job became a Career Service position -- with qualifications tailored to Bourgeron, who has lots of city experience but no college degree. According to the CSA posting for Deputy Manager of Aviation for Marketing/Government Affairs, "A year of experience in crisis communications plan development and implementation within the aviation business is preferred. A degree in public relations, marketing, mass communications or related fields plus three years of supervisory experience in a public relations or marketing environment -- additional appropriate experience or education can be substituted for experience or education."

The 816-A level CSA job carried a salary of up to $112,092 a year.

Bourgeron's experience with the city -- including handling numerous problems at DIA -- made her uniquely qualified for a post in which she would "be required to respond to emergency incidents at the airport."

Emergency incidents, for example, like the dust-up caused last month when First Lady Wilma Webb feared she was a victim of "racial profiling" after airport security agents asked her a few questions about her comings and goings. Meanwhile, passengers all around her were pawed like they'd bought one-way tickets in cash - Saudi cash..

But never mind. Bourgeron and a few other CSA employees turned appointees turned CSA employees have found their happy zone.

Smiles build bridges between people, regardless of language, age or culture. Smiling creates a "happy zone" around you. It's contagious, like standing on a corner at a streetlight and looking up. It only takes seconds for the people around you to start looking up, too.

-- from "Creating a Happy Zone"

Two weeks ago, members of the city's Special Charter Revision committee finally looked up -- and they didn't like what they saw. The night before, the Denver City Council had oh-so-grudgingly accepted an 18 percent pay hike recommended by the Career Service Board that they were just duty-bound to accept under the city's current charter. Unless, of course, the committee now decided to push for a special revision that would change the system. But despite the fact that Councilman Dennis Gallagher had such a proposal at the ready, other members decided there simply wasn't enough time before the May election.

And really, what's the hurry? The amount needed to cover the raises for elected officials is a mere drop in the increasingly empty bucket when compared to the sheer volume of the city's CSA employee payroll.

Decades ago, about a third of the city's CSA employees received merit raises each year -- a minority presumably singled out because they actually did better jobs than the majority of the city workers. But last year, when CSA employees were already receiving a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase, 75 percent of those eligible also got merit raises -- most just over 4 percent.

That meant that in a city where the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development outlets are jammed with the unemployed -- people desperate for a job, any job -- the average city worker got a raise of almost 8 percent and was pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn't lose his job unless he did something really, really stupid. (By the way, John Oglesby's CSA parking position is still open.)

"It's never-never land," moaned one stunned committee member after doing a little math.

More stunning news: The 40 percent of the CSA employees who weren't eligible for a merit raise weren't eligible because they'd already reached the dizzying top of the city's pay scale.

"It's an unfortunate coincidence that the raise issue came at the same time the budget went down the tubes," acknowledged another bean-counting bureaucrat.

Unfortunate, yes, and so daunting that committee members reasoned there was really no way they could change the rules regarding elected officials' paltry raises without also taking a look at the big picture. The really big picture. The 10,000-person-plus CSA payroll that's eating up Denver's budget and could soon necessitate cuts in services while city employees take home raises that city residents only dream about -- even if the next round of CSA salary increases will be postponed by six months, in deference to the tough times.

"Most people in town have been happy to keep their jobs these past twelve months," says one Webb holdover. And in recognition of that very unhappy state of affairs, members of the current administration have decided to do a favor for members of the next: They're taking one last run at proposing revisions in the CSA system, calling all the interested parties together -- including the city's official change manager? -- to see if they can't come up with some solution other than dumping the entire mess on the new mayor.

Gallagher hasn't given up on his charter proposal, either. "We're in a budget shortfall," he says. "Have we noticed?"

From the conclusion of "Creating a Happy Zone":

We're surrounded by bad news. We make choices each minute regarding our responses to that bad news. We must be extremely vigilant to avoid falling into that easy downward spiral. Want to change your life? Want to make yourself and others happy? Check out the smile thing. It's magic. And there are no negative budget implications -- it's free.

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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