Denver City Council members say that freebies from the city don’t sway their decision-making. Still, recent criticism about some of them accepting $10,000 plane tickets has prompted a reconsideration of some city ethics policies.
The council’s Finance and Governance Committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of changing its ethics and disclosure rules to require its City Council members and mayor’s office employees to disclose semi-annually pricey airline tickets and other items of at least $50 in value they receive from city personnel or city agencies outside their own offices.
The full council could hold a first reading on the proposal as soon as next week.
Though the proposed amendment would apply, in theory, to something as small as an office plant that someone from Parks and Recreation gives to a council member, it aims to addresses a more significant concern over business-class airline tickets that city officials receive from Denver International Airport.
As was first reported by Colorado Public Radio, the airport provided more than $400,000 in plane trips – mostly business-class, mostly international – to the council and the mayor’s office between 2013 and 2017. That included a Paris junket for which some city officials got business-class seats valued at $16,000.
Councilman Kevin Flynn, who proposed the amendments, made reference to a time when he took a city-purchased poinsettia for his own office, as an example of the sort of benign exchanges that take place all the time among city employees and officials.
“People are less interested in poinsettias,” he said. “They’re more interested in airline trips. … That’s the anchor of this.”
The director and board chairman from the advocacy organization Colorado Common Cause – which, among other things, lobbies for government transparency – both warned the council about an “appearance of impropriety” that could remain even if the amendments are approved by the full council.
“When residents hear about elected officials going on trips that they perceive to be extravagant, images of villainous, dirty politicians arise,” said Common Cause Executive Director Amanda Gonzalez.
Added Common Cause board chairman Jeff Hart, “Whether it’s accepting business-class tickets from DIA or Bronco tickets or lunches or anything else of value, it creates a conflict of interest from bosses and their subordinates, and [the council] is the boss of sorts of people like (airport CEO) Kim Day and other city departments.
“You do have influence and control over those people, as does the mayor.”
This was the same case made by the Denver Board of Ethics, an oversight body appointed by the mayor and council, tasked with investigating complaints from reesidents and city employees about ethical issues within city government. The board in late 2017 found that city agencies could influence council members and the mayor’s office through gifts.
Council members on the committee didn’t seem to buy that finding, and disputed ethics watchdogs’ suggestion that gifts they receive from within the city might lead to favoritism. Rather, they spoke about how useful their city-related international travels are to their work and decision-making.
“We as a city learn when we go and see other communities,” said Councilwoman Robin Kniech. “I don’t think most of my constituents would say, ‘You know what? We don’t want you to see how those things are done.’”
Councilman Paul Lopez said he doesn’t think the matter of internal gifting is of any interest to residents in his district.
“The last thing I know my constituents want to be concerned about is whether we reported the socks that we got from the airport that … I’ll probably maybe wear once, on a trip to Panama. I think we are overthinking it,” he said.
Added Lopez: “I have 99 problems, but socks aren’t one.”
To underscore that point, Flynn pointed to various small items he has received as a councilman that he considers harmless.
“Coffee mugs, socks, catnip,” he said. “I don’t even have a cat.”
But it was far higher-priced gifts such as airline tickets that members have been criticized for accepting and that prompted Tuesday’s discussion. In response to news coverage about council members accepting $10,000 business-class seats trips to and from Europe on DIA’s dime, many watchdogs and members of the public have clamored for greater transparency and less extravagance.
Though the amendments at issue Tuesday would improve transparency, the question of setting limits on extravagance was left unaddressed in the committee meeting.
Flynn said afterward that it’s something the committee could take up in the future.
Photo by Alex Burness