One of Denver’s soon-to-be council members says Michael Hancock’s administration is sidestepping their input on hundreds of millions of dollars in public projects on the city’s north side.
“There’s a game they’re playing here. The Mayor is shoving things through now because he knows it would be harder once we’re in office,” says Rafael Espinoza, who swears-in less than a month from now as councilman for northwest Denver’s Council District One.
Espinoza will be one of seven new members on a 13-seat council that, for the first time since Hancock took office in 2011, is expected to diverge from Hancock about several massive, city-subsidized projects. Espinoza, among others, rode into office challenging the pace of development in Denver.
Tonight’s council agenda includes three of the major pieces of Hancock’s pet undertaking – his “Corridor of Opportunity” between DIA and downtown.
One agenda item seeks council permission for a deal between the city and Adams County about developing land at DIA’s so-called “Airport City.” Another would pave the way for a ballot question about whether to extend city car rental and lodging taxes to pay for the Western Stock Show expansion.
A third agenda item asks the council to approve an agreement between the city and the state regarding the expansion of I-70 in north Denver. Although the deal item ostensibly is about a project to ease storm-water from flooding next to the highway, it also encompasses several other issues, including whether the city should put up $83 million in cash and in-kind payments to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), including handing over ownership of 46th Avenue below market value and waiving $15 million in permit fees. The lengthy agreement was given to the council on Thursday. Critics say that’s not nearly enough time to understand the fine print of funding schemes that will last 30 years.
“These are issues the new council will be saddled with. They’re issues we should decide,” said Espinoza, a critic of the highway expansion, as planned.
He’s not the only one criticizing the administration’s handling of tonight’s agenda items. Incumbent at-large Councilwoman Debbie Ortega also takes issue with the timing of the votes, especially the I-70 expansion. She says four days isn’t long enough for council members to comb through the details of the agreement with CDOT. And, she adds, there are too many unanswered questions about the environmental impacts of the highway expansion for a vote on the deal to be scheduled now.
Ortega says the issue is too big not to solicit public input. She’ll be bucking the administration by calling for a public hearing on the expansion deal before the council’s final vote July 13.
“I’m struggling with the fact that there are things beyond drainage that end up in this deal and I’m not sure why we’re being asked to vote on them now,” Ortega said.
She added that the “administration has been very intentional about wanting to get as many things done as they can before the new council.”
“It makes no sense for the council to make a decision without knowing what we’re committing to.”
Hancock’s office did not answer The Colorado Independent’s inquiry about the agenda items.
Thad Tecza is a longtime political science instructor at CU-Boulder who’s active in Unite North Metro Denver, a citizens’ group that wants an alternative to the I-70 expansion. They’re concerned about the impact of the project on north Denver’s Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods. Residents there are concerned about the effects of air pollution, especially on kids in schools near the interstate. Many are critical of a plan to add toll lanes along the section of the highway to be widened.
“They’ll use congestion pricing that will force cars out of the tolls lanes and create even more congestion. It’s the epitome of Lexus lanes — they’re willing to sell out those communities in order to provide a fast ride for rich people to the airport,” Tecza said.
As he sees it, new council members – who are scheduled to be worn in July 20 – should be the ones considering these issues.
“If people are going to trust government, elections have to have consequences,” he said. “The majority of city council are lame ducks. These people should be tidying up their desks and searching the want ads for new jobs. They shouldn’t be ramming through three major initiatives that will determine the future of the northern half of the city for the next 50 years.”
Photo credit: Screenshot from Michael Hancock’s 2015 campaign announcement.