Denver's at-large councilmembers look to create lasting change

Deborah Ortega and Robin Kniech were each elected for a third term

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Last month, Life on Capitol Hill featured profiles on the two new councilmembers that will be representing the area that the newspaper covers. For the August issue we included a profile on Denver's two at-large members of the city council, Robin Kniech and Deborah Ortega.

The role of an at-large councilmember is a little different than that of a regular councilmember. Instead of representing a specific district, at-large members represent the city as a whole. Both Kniech and Ortega were elected for their third, and final, terms during the May election. At-large and district council members are considered two different positions. Councilmembers like Ortega who served as district members can then run for at-large and vice versa.

Kniech, who was an attorney before first being elected to council in 2011, said that she often looks at issues from a citywide perspective, such as housing vouchers for low-income Denver residents. Before the citizenship question was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, Ortega was looking into how the upcoming census would impact Denver residents.

Creating an impact

Being an at-large member, Kniech said they have a unique opportunity to expand on opportunities from the state Legislature. Some examples she had were policies around minimum wage, climate and housing.

“These things have a bigger impact than just their local area,” Kniech said.

She added that she has been looking into participatory budgeting. This gives people more of a say in how city money is spent, and gives them a “greater feeling of ownership,” Kniech said.

Occasionally, Kniech will work with individual communities on projects.

“I also go where I'm invited,” she said.

Partnerships can help to get projects, such as the Platte Farm Open Space in Globeville, up and running. The new park was announced in December, and was originally used as farm space. Before its new designation as a park, the land had become an area where people were dumping trash.

Kniech said she still tries to look at the community projects through a citywide lens. It is her hope to create a larger impact and to benefit more people with the work she does in the city. Creating open space in a traditionally low-income neighborhood will help some of Denver's most vulnerable residents.

With housing projects, Kniech said her new term will be a “continuation of the same conversation.” Equity in development is one of her biggest priorities. She also wants to make sure that the history and character of the individual neighborhoods that are going through development are respected.

The turnover in city council was not a big change for Kniech, who said she has worked with several new councilmembers each time she was elected. She has also worked with some of the new members in their individual advocacy projects.

Kniech herself was a pioneer in council at the time she was first elected. She was the first openly LGBTQ member of council, and one of the first with young children. She said she saw herself as “representing families” on the council.

“The council has not always been full of people with young kids,” Kniech said.

Changing the system

Ortega has spent most of her career working with the Denver City Council. She started as an aide to Councilman Salvador “Sal” Carpio, who represented District 9 from 1975 to 1987. At the time, the district included part of downtown and followed the Interstate 70 corridor as well as Baker and Lincoln Park. She then ran for that position in 1987 and won the seat. For the next 16 years she served as the representative for District 9. During her tenure, the voters passed an initiative that limited representatives to three terms.

After she was term-limited as the District 9 representative in 2003, Ortega worked for the Denver Commission on Homelessness as the executive director while John Hickenlooper was in office as mayor of Denver. Her main focus was to help create a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“None of us anticipated this downturn in the economy and then this quick upswing in the economy that would then exacerbate our housing crisis and challenges,” Ortega said.

Housing development and homelessness continues to be a focus for Ortega in her third term as an at-large councilmember. She first ran for the at-large seat in 2011. In particular, she's focusing on new development plans along Interstate 25, including the Elitch Gardens site.

One thing Ortega said she has noticed over the years is that the city used to work more with nonprofit developers for affordable housing projects. Now that has transitioned into for-profit developers. On top of that, nonprofits are working more with loans instead of grants for funds. This all trickles down to renters, which can make it harder for low-income people.

“It's harder to truly make the units affordable at a price point to reach lower (area median income) levels,” Ortega said.

Additionally, Ortega wants to look at the city charter, changing the way the council is run. Some of these changes could be to clean up language, others could be a major change, she said.

When Hickenlooper started as governor, she said, he made the strong-mayor government of Denver even stronger. For example, payroll and bill payments moved from the auditor's office into the office of the mayor. There were also changes to the zoning code in 2010. Now the city uses form-based zoning, Ortega said. At first Ortega thought this meant that there would be fewer zoning changes. But that has not been the case.

“It removed council from seeing the level of details that we used to see,” she said.

She wants to be sure that infrastructure and building locations are assessed before developments. Big-picture details are important. When developments are close to rail stations, for example, trains going through newly dense areas can cause a lot of traffic backup, which can lead to safety and emergency hazards. Ortega said she also wants to see residents more involved with things like community benefit agreements. Without some of that, the city can lose a lot of what makes it special.

“We've got some challenges around how we're going to develop as a city and move forward and allow some of that,” she said, “but really address all the infrastructure and the impact issues.”

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