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Nobody's indispensable

City Sage



The old world is dying away and the new world struggles to come forth..." — Antonio Gramsci

Here's how to get a public facility named after you: Run for local office. Get elected. Get re-elected. Get re-re-elected.

And if you don't want to run for office, go to work for Utilities, the city or the county. Become a senior manager and retire gracefully after 40 years or so.

During your long tenure, don't piss anybody off, don't displease the local power structure, and never miss an opportunity to build stuff. A power plant, a wastewater treatment facility, an airport, a transportation barn, a courthouse — naming opportunities one and all!

These simple rules of government and politics were in play last week at the Thursday meeting of the county commissioners, when former commissioner Chuck Brown was honored. Henceforth, the county transportation facility will bear his name.

There to congratulate the amiable Brown was a once-dazzling lineup of power brokers past, including developer/éminence grise Steve Schuck, retired county transportation director Max Rothschild, former commissioners Ed Jones and Loren Whittemore, and former commissioner/county administrator Terry Harris. They showered Chuck with fulsome praise, as did the incumbent commissioners.

Yet the ceremony, which should have been a graceful coda to Brown's life and career, symbolized the painful transitions of today's local politics, and the fierce reluctance of current leaders to leave the stage. After the ceremony, commissioners turned to the messy business of term limits. Having managed to increase existing limits from two four-year terms to three last November (with a deceptively worded ballot measure), commissioners have dealt with some belated backlash.

The three incumbents who voted to put the measure on the 2010 ballot (Sallie Clark, Dennis Hisey and Amy Lathen) were roundly attacked by activists of every political stripe. The activists didn't mince words, accusing the three of corrupt self-dealing and of deliberately deceiving the public for their own financial gain. The commissioners pleaded innocent. They claimed the ballot language was clear, county residents voted for it overwhelmingly, and the commissioners' only goal in submitting the measure was to serve their constituents.

Clark spoke of her long experience in city and county government, her neighborhood activism, the 800 meetings she attends each year, and her mastery of the complex interactions between local, state and federal governments.

Lathen and Hisey followed similar scripts. Stripped of self-justifying rhetoric, the three messages were the same:

"I'm good at my job. If I want to run for another term, that's between me and my constituents. If they don't want me, they'll choose someone else."

That's the siren song of incumbency. It ignores the obvious — that once a politician is entrenched in office, it's almost impossible to get him/her out, absent term limits. And even with term limits, party warhorses such as Doug Lamborn, Keith King and Kent Lambert manage to hopscotch from office to office, effectively thumbing their noses at term limits.

Politicians, like aging sports stars, rarely know when to quit. For every John Elway, who walked away as Super Bowl MVP, there are dozens of Brett Favres. And for every Bob Isaac, who left as mayor in 1997 when he no longer loved the job, there are dozens of Sallie Clarks, who believe themselves indispensable.

Our city, divided for 20 years over social and political issues (gays, guns, God, abortion and TABOR) is less contentious nowadays, but still divided — this time over generational change. Our feisty young City Council is led by veterans Jan Martin and Scott Hente. Our new establishment-friendly mayor is nearing 70, while his first appointee, Chief of Staff Steve Cox, is a career city employee closing in on 60.

In Denver, by contrast, 41-year-old newly elected Mayor Michael Hancock appointed 39-year-old Janice Sinden as his chief of staff. Hancock is a liberal Democrat while Sinden is a Republican activist who worked for U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and now heads a business-oriented nonprofit.

Change has come to Denver — and is long overdue here. So, a modest suggestion: Let's make a deal with some of our superannuated leaders.

Stop running for office, and we'll name something after you.

For example: Sallie Clark Fire Station No. 3.

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