The Denver City Charter does not give city council the authority to independently contract for legal and other professional services. Two incidences in the past year have convinced me that the charter needs to be changed to clearly allow city council or its members to seek professional services to assist us as a body in addressing policy, reviewing complex contracts or on various projects where outside expertise is needed.
You may remember the controversial Denver International Airport Great Hall contract. City council was being asked to approve a 34-year, $1.8 billion agreement to design, construct, finance, operate and maintain concessions on the fifth level at Denver International Airport. The first-of-a-kind agreement for DIA ran 157-pages and included 15,000 pages of addendums and attachments, excluding the financial documents. Over a period of months, the agreement had been negotiated by a city team that included special counsel to DIA with expertise in complicated public/private partnership agreements.
City council was expected to review this complicated arrangement and cast our first votes in one weeks’ time. I, and four of my colleagues, sought and found outside legal counsel with public/private partnership experience to assist us in reviewing the documents in the short time frame provided. Their work was stopped mid-stream when we were informed by the city attorney that we could not hire legal counsel under the charter, nor would she approve payment to the team we had engaged.
I believed then and now that city council would better serve the people of Denver by having a thorough understanding of the finances, revenue and project delivery. Instead, we were expected to trust the team that negotiated the agreement (and had a vested interest in approval) and representatives of the company selected to carry out the project, Ferrovial, who joined airport staff in briefing council members.
For city council members to do our due diligence in reviewing this and other complex multimillion dollar and multiyear contracts, it may be necessary to hire professional consultants to assist us with a thorough review of large projects.
There were also a series of employee-related cases and an incident involving the mayor’s inappropriate text messages to a member of his security detail. City council committed to “researching the historical data surrounding employment cases and settlements, as well as crafting a policy going forward that will ensure council has more information regarding these settlements.”
I think it is imperative that we utilize outside legal expertise free from any potential conflict of interest to assist in crafting policy for these and other large settlements.
I conclude that the Denver City Charter needs to be amended to clearly provide city council and its members the ability to hire legal and other professional services to assist in contract review, legal research and analysis and other activities as we work to fulfill our obligations to Denver’s citizens.
Councilmember Paul Kashmann and I worked with our legislative counsel in the city attorney’s office to draft language to make this change in the charter, which would ultimately be taken to a vote of the people. This was presented to the Finance and Governance committee on Aug. 14. It became clear in talking to our colleagues that there is interest in looking at the city council powers in the charter from a broader perspective. As a result, I have pulled my bill that would have brought the matter to the voters in November, and instead will allow more time for comprehensive review and recommendations in time for the May 2019 ballot. Kashmann and I will co-chair a committee to identify obsolete sections of the charter or to add in new sections clarifying how council meets its responsibilities to the voters.
I ask that you stay tuned and communicate with us what your expectations are for city council with the above instances in mind. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts on this subject.
Deborah Ortega is a councilmember at-large on the Denver City Council. At-large council members represent the city as a whole.
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