22 April 2011

Denver's Race For City Auditor

Three candidates are running in Denver's municipal election for which mail-in ballots have been sent out and must be received back by May 3, 2011. The auditor's job in Denver's City government is basically to be an independent voice charged with identifying fraud, waste, abuse, corruption and other opportunities to get better economic deals for the city than it currently has in place. The office has also historically been a launching ground for heavy weight contenders in municipal government including former Mayor Wellington E. Webb, and the man who can in second place to Mayor Hickenlooper when Hickenlooper was first elected as Mayor, Don Mares.

One candidate is incumbent Dennis Gallagher, who is a bit of a gadfly on the liberal political scene, has had a generally successful and scandal free term of office, and is most famous for getting a proposition that makes businesses pay property taxes at higher rates than residential property owners into Colorado's Constitution. Since 1970, he has spent four years as a state representative, 20 years as a state senator, eight years on Denver's city council and is now the incumbent auditor. He runs with the support of former Denver Mayors Hickenlooper and Webb. His office has identified multiple cases of significant questionable spending during his tenure, and he has certainly not fallen prey to group think or bureaucratic capture by the rest of city government. During Hickenlooper's tenure, the City Charter was amended, in part in deference to the way in which Gallagher was running the office, to remove some of the more routine financial auditing duties from the position and to place those duties instead in the set of responsibilities of a new senior Mayoral appointee. Some would interpret this removal of responsibilities from the office as a criticism, but Gallagher did not object and it is part of a larger trend in how fiscal responsibilities are allocated in state and local governments. Thus, like the federal GAO, the focus of the auditor's role has shifted from an accounting oriented one to a more general accountability oriented role.

A second is Marcus D. Richardson, a long time career employee of the Denver auditor's office under four successive auditors who also had experience as a career auditor before coming to Denver. He is clearly competent and knows where the bodies are buried in city government. He is African-American. The main difficulties he faces in this campaign are that (1) all of his accomplishments as an auditor are also those of his boss whom he is running against, (2) his campaign basically calls for a continuation of the status quo approach to how the office is run apart from increasing diversity in the office, (3) he has identified no compelling reason for the voters to vote against Gallagher as a referendum on his performance in office, and (4) Richardson, as a career civil servant, hasn't had much of an opportunity to develop the political clout and savvy needed to be influential in a position whose power derives as much from having a bully pulpit as it does from having technical expertise. Locating accountability issues is only part of the job; one also has to generate enough public outrage about those issues to have them corrected. Gallagher's independent and populist streak has been a generally good fit for that bully pulpit role, while Richardson is untested in this part of the job.

Note also that Richardson isn't necessarily foolish for having run what seems in hindsight to be a hopeless campaign. It isn't unusual for a candidate to drop out of a race for public office for some reason mid-term, or to have a candidacy derailed by a late breaking scandal, and you have to be in the running to take advantage of an opportunity like that if it arises. He also establishes himself as someone interested in a more prominent role on the political scene than he holds right now, and because he has run a very clean campaign, he hasn't necessarily made many enemies by doing so.

Finally, Bill Wells is running on a campaign to abolish elections for the position he is is running to fill, which makes his agenda for the office seem a bit contradictory, as does the fact that he thinks it is appropriate manages to slip an attack on President Obama's budget process into his answers to questions from the Denver Post about his position on the issues in the city auditor race. He worked in Denver city government in the 1970s and early 1980s, left Denver to run a family trucking company in Pennsylvania where he served in the local city government, and returned in 2002. He is currently a semi-retired TSA employee. While he is not obvious either incompetent (he has a relevant professional credential and is not too cranky on his website despite its sloppy appearance), he is hardly a serious contender to an incumbent who is a state political legend and is largely out of the loop about what has been going on in the inner workings of Denver City government for the last thirty years.

There is some merit, by the way, in having a non-elected auditor. Arguably, voters are ill equipped to evaluate the qualifications of someone running for the office in a low profile, non-partisan race that will always be second banana to the Mayoral and city council races. In state government, the auditor is appointed by the legislature to provide a legislative branch check on executive branch excess (in addition to the check provided by having a divided executive branch). But, Denver's experience with the position has by and large been quite good. A bad auditor is not in a good position to harm city government, while a good auditor can make a valuable contribution. Also, alternate means of appointing an auditor may be less likely to attract someone who can break free of the "group think" of the rest of City government in a context where the politicians, after long hours working together, can become blinded to possible areas of concern, and may be less likely to attract someone with the political moxy and presence necessary to be effective in the job.

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