Either Denver City Council members blather too much, or someone’s trying to muzzle critics of Mayor Michael Hancock.
Those are the takes on a proposed rule seeking to limit the amount of time a member can comment and ask questions at public meetings.
“We as a council are doing way too much talking,” says Councilman Albus Brooks, who’s behind the proposal and who notes that council members speak two to three times longer at council meetings than members of the public. “People want to see us showing restraint and disciplining ourselves.”
Councilman Rafael Espinoza counters that Brooks’ proposal seeks, in effect, to mute members who are critical of the Mayor.
“The administration is trying to limit our power even further,” he says. “They’re trying, flat out, to silence us.”
Denver’s is a strong-mayor, weak-council form of government, meaning that the mayor has most of the power over key policy and budget decisions and can veto ordinances approved by the 13-member council. Under Hancock and most of his predecessors, a council majority traditionally has backed the mayor’s agenda and are rewarded, in turn, with funding for their pet projects and districts.
The current council is a bit different than past councils in that seven newcomers – all rookies – were elected in 2015. That means more than half the members have had a steep curve learning the ins and outs of zoning, city contracting and lawmaking. It also means they’ve had lots of questions.
There’s another factor at play, too. Although the majority of members have lined up behind Hancock, some have challenged key parts of his agenda. This has been evident this month as the council considered Hancock’s affordable housing plan. It was especially clear earlier this summer when members debated a controversial, $300 million plan for a massive storm water drainage system from the Platte River to Park Hill. One of those council meetings didn’t end until after 2 a.m.
City staffers, activists, lobbyists, journalists and even some council members have grumbled about having to sit for hours while some members drone on with proclamations about spelling bee winners and high school football teams, pontificate about personal matters or ramble in confusion about the ordinances proposed on their agendas.
“It can get mind-numbing – like Novocain for the soul,” says one city watchdog (who asked that her name not be used for this story). She says this past year she decided to spend Monday evenings watching council meetings on cable TV rather than from the hard benches in council chambers. “Now I can at least fold laundry while I listen.”
As Brooks tells it, an analysis of last year’s meetings shows that some members have spoken for nearly an hour on single ordinances. He refuses to release that data because, he says, “I don’t want to embarrass certain council members.”
Sources who’ve seen the analysis say that Espinoza and Councilwoman Debbie Ortega are listed as the biggest talkers on council. As it happens, both also have been the most outspoken critics of Hancock and his administration – especially his handling of the storm water project and his affordable housing plan, which both criticized as lacking ambition. Espinoza and Ortega also have blasted Hancock and his office for a general lack of transparency in city government.
The administration hasn’t yet responded to an inquiry for this story.
Since Brooks became council president in July, he has been mulling proposals to limit the time council members can speak at council committee hearings and regular Monday night council meetings – both of which are open to the public. He first sought to allow each member 10 minutes for comments and three questions per bill, but he’s now eyeing a five-minute window for comments and a limit of three questions per bill. He says he has “overwhelming support” from his colleagues for the resolution, which may appear on next week’s council agenda.
“I think there’s a lot of feeling of let’s tighten it up out of respect for the people who have to sit in these pews every Monday,” he says.
Espinoza maintains that the proposal is motivated less by respect for the public than a desire to shush dissent among an already-weak council.
Ortega, currently an at-large councilwoman who represented northwest Denver on the council from 1987 to 2003, says Hancock’s administration provides less background information to council members than previous mayors. She says members need that material to cast informed votes.
“We’re not always given the complete data and I’m expecting a little better due diligence on the part of the city agencies,” she says. “People elect us to be their voice. To just shut us down makes no sense at all.”
At least on this issue, Espinoza and Ortega have found an ally in Councilman Kevin Flynn, a former Rocky Mountain News reporter who clocked plenty of late Monday nights during years covering Denver council meetings. Flynn – who says he’s “squarely in the middle” of Brooks’ chatter rankings – says it’s discourteous to the public when council meetings run late, but “it’s also discourteous to the public to have their elected representatives cut off in debate while deliberating the public’s business.”
As Flynn sees it, the problem isn’t that there are too many items on the council’s agenda, but that the council isn’t enforcing existing rules requiring members to limit their discussion to the specific item being discussed. Rather than pushing for new rules, the council’s president “needs to lean on his authority to enforce” existing rules to keep members from wandering off-topic, says Flynn, who calls Brooks’ proposal an overreaction.
Flynn notes that the council’s authority already has been ratcheted back by cutting the time members have to consider city contracts. “We already have as little authority and power as you can imagine,” he says. To change council rules because of a few long-winded members, he adds, “would be foolish.”
Flynn sees the fact that the two biggest offenders on Brooks’ list happen to be the Mayor’s two loudest critics as “serendipity,” not political back-stabbing.
Brooks also dismisses the notion that his proposal is politically motivated. “It’s just the way this has shaken out,” he says. “I would strongly resist the temptation for people to rush to the conclusion that this is politics.”
The current rule requiring members to stay on-topic doesn’t go far enough, he adds. He wants a time limit on the books so that he and future council presidents may enforce more discipline.
Brooks argues that members of Congress abide by time limits, and he dismisses criticisms that his measure would further weaken the council.
“I think it strengthens us because (we’ll have to get) right to the point,” he says. “We won’t be pontificating.”
Civic watchdogs says they fear Brooks’ measure will, in effect, amount to censorship.
“Members of the public who watch the proceedings are entitled to hear what council members are thinking and what council members may learn by asking questions of the administration,” says Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
“Sometimes, robust conversations about tough issues can be time consuming,” adds Elena Nuñez of the government transparency group Common Cause.
Nuñez worries that effectively silencing the Mayor’s most vocal critics “creates the appearance that council is expected to just be a rubber stamp for the administration.”
Flickr photo by Felipe Del Valle