Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Opinon: Hickenlooper's style needs improvement

Susan Barnes-Gelt may be the city's best political critic. In our polluted political atmosphere, we tend to equate a critic with applying negative judgments on others. But criticism derives from a Greek word, kritikos, meaning "one who discerns."

And that's what Barnes-Gelt does.

Mayor John Hickenlooper could especially use such discerning review. His seemingly-untouchable popularity creates a ripe environment for hubris and intellectual stagnation. The December 30, 2006 column below, entitled "Hick's Game Strategy Needs Work," provides a measure of reality and insight rarely seen these days, especially in the stagnating Denver dailies.
John Hickenlooper had a tough third quarter. Witness:

  • He dismissed high-profile architect Steven Holl amid charges and counter-charges about the designer's willingness to adhere to budget and program constraints for Denver's new courthouse.

  • The November mid-term election was a complete failure, from absentee ballots to vote centers.

  • Denver's all-weather international airport was shut down for 45 hours before Christmas, raising questions about crisis planning and management. Nearly all of Denver's side streets and too many commercial corridors remained impassable throughout the long holiday weekend.

  • Numerous senior appointees have resigned six months before the end of the mayor's first term.

For the 50-something, successful entrepreneur who promised to get rid of the "fundamental nonsense" of government, jumping out of an airplane looks easier than the sturm und drang of governing.

As he prepares for re-election in May, the mayor describes himself as an open-field runner, heading toward the goalposts with the ball. Hickenlooper wants to advance new ideas while looking to his Cabinet and staff to run interference and resolve skirmishes.

The mayor's track record of championing a bold idea and using the power of his high-persuasion personality and fund-raising skills to sell it remains strong.

His Achilles heel may be his failure to encourage challenges to the efficacy of a new program or big idea. Integrating and coordinating change into the balkanized silos of government requires enormous patience.

Case in point: voter approval of a sales-tax increase to fund preschool for Denver's 4-year-olds. Perhaps the narrow victory margin - 1.16 percent of the vote - reflected concerns about still-to-be-developed governance, quality assurance, full-day versus half-day, church-state conflicts, whether Denver will lose state-funded preschool slots and if providers will have to increase tuition despite the new $12 million.

Resolutely upbeat, the mayor believes the program will a template for the state and the nation. Never mind that implementation details remain unclear. Universal preschool is vital to the success of public education, the mayor argues.

Similarly, Hickenlooper's commitment to prudent financial management led him to cap the costs of the new justice center at $378 million - reducing the project's scope to come up with a figure that could be sold to the voters without a tax increase.

He also insisted on world-class architecture and set up a public jury to ensure a quality selection. Was the jury advised about serious budget constraints? No. When Steven Holl was selected - by a narrow 8-7 vote - did staff vigorously investigate the designer's record of completing public commissions with constrained budgets, communicating that information to the jury and the mayor? Apparently not.

John Hickenlooper sees Denver as a petri dish for innovation. His curiosity and acute intelligence draw him to big ideas, which he hopes to translate into broad and systemic change.

For three years, he has put himself at the leading edge of attractive trends - regional cooperation, expanded transportation infrastructure and sustainable development. His instincts and vision have been good for Denver and for the region.

However, God is in the details. Though surrounded by talented Cabinet and staff, like many relentlessly optimistic entrepreneurs he has little patience for bad news. He is a man accustomed to blowing through problems by sheer force of personality and positive thinking.

After nearly four years, perhaps he's learning that government isn't all nonsense. Unfettered boosterism may work for sports teams and economic development initiatives. But real change and authentic stewardship must be subject to critical thinking accompanied by the patient poking and prodding of a loving skeptic.

Just over the horizon are several key initiatives: a mammoth capital improvements list; the need to increase resources for annual maintenance and repairs; Sloan's Lake down-zoning and increasing private encroachments into Denver's fragile public right- of-way.

Perhaps city government and the public would be better served if Mayor Hickenlooper plays the role of tough head coach instead of open field runner.

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