Aurora council defends cuts to diversity office, public defender, police monitor in first round of budget voting

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Aurora City Council members discuss an expansion of city homelessness offerings, creating a center with additional kinds of housing. SENTINEL SCREEN GRAB

AURORA | Most of Aurora’s City Council gave their blessing to the city’s 2023 budget on Monday, including cutting vacant positions related to diversity and police oversight, as well as proposed new positions in the public defender’s office.

The cuts were first proposed during the group’s Oct. 8 budget workshop, where council members scrutinized vacant positions, in part to make up for the $5.9 million deficit that would have been created by repealing the city’s occupational privilege tax.

At least for now, the council has rejected the idea of repealing the tax, but on Monday, members stood by their decision to cut the positions from the city’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as well as a city office formed after the death of Elijah McClain to monitor the actions of police.

The cuts and the refusal of the majority to reconsider led some council members to criticize the budgeting process and vote “no” on the budget as a whole.

“I just want to express my significant disappointment with our inability as a council to prioritize meaningful things to our community, things that our community has told us that, yes, they actually do want, and that express value to all members of our community, not just some,” Councilmember Alison Coombs said after unsuccessfully proposing to restore the position cut from the diversity office.

Supporters of the cuts pointed out that the jobs had been vacant anyway, saying the roles were redundant and unnecessary for now.

“It was said earlier that a budget is a statement of values, and I agree with that, and one of the things that I value is not wasting taxpayer money on duplicative positions,” Councilmember Curtis Gardner said.

The budget was voted on in four parts. Council members voted 7-3 to pass the first part, with Coombs, Juan Marcano and Crystal Murillo voting “no.” The second part passed 9-1, with only Coombs voting “no.” The final two parts passed unanimously.

Thousands gathered, June 27, 2020, at the Aurora Municipal Center, to protest and pay tribute to Elijah McClain who died last year after an encounter with three officers from the Aurora Police Department and Aurora firefighters.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Cuts and cop reforms

Last February, city leaders announced plans to create an internal office overseeing police activity while addressing the findings of a 2021 report that blasted police and firefighters for their role in Elijah McClain’s death.

At the time of the council’s Oct. 8 budget workshop, the three full-time positions budgeted for the office had not been hired.

City Manager Jim Twombly told the group Monday that the city was waiting to fill the three positions in part because their duties overlap with those of IntegrAssure, a risk management firm chosen in February to make sure the city complies with police and fire reforms outlined in a contract known as a consent decree with the state attorney general’s office.

Unlike the consent decree monitor, the independent police monitor exists as an office of the city. Twombly also said the city was waiting to see what policy recommendations emerged from the consent decree reform process.

“As it is, the consent decree monitor is looking at some of our practices and policies as to how we handle use of force, how we handle internal investigations and so on,” Twombly said. “With that going on and the fact that we hadn’t filled them, … I felt it was OK to go ahead and eliminate those positions at this point in time. However, I do think it will be important in the future.”

Aurora’s independent police monitor was created as an internal entity to evaluate the behavior of Aurora police and field citizen complaints, while IntegrAssure was hired to ensure the city’s compliance with public safety reforms agreed upon by the city and the state attorney general’s office.

Some council members questioned the cut, which saves the city just under $420,000, saying it may be useful to hire at least one employee who could work during and after the implementation of the consent decree, helping the city with the transition.

“I’m going to vote ‘yes’ on this budget because of all of the other services that we have to provide, but I’m very disappointed in this budget,” Councilmember Angela Lawson said. “It’s kind of upside-down on a lot of things.”

Lawson said, and Twombly confirmed, that the internal monitor fills a unique public communications role, accepting and investigating public complaints, that is not necessarily being filled by IntegrAssure. Lawson also said she was disappointed that the Oct. 8 budget meeting wasn’t televised, limiting the public’s involvement in that part of the budget process.

However, the city manager also told Councilmember Francoise Bergan that he “wouldn’t strongly advocate” for filling the positions right now, and supporters of the cut said it was simply a cost-saving measure at a time when the monitor wasn’t needed.

“There’s no way I would support adding something that we already have,” Bergan said. “We already do this through the consent decree. … I think the better option would be to put it in one year or two years from now as we get closer to seeing how we’re doing with the consent decree.”

Marcano and Coombs argued that the council should hire one person to stay on during the implementation of the consent decree and set the salaries of the other two aside within the budget. The proposal was ultimately voted down, with Coombs, Lawson, Marcano, Murillo and Ruben Medina voting in favor and Mayor Mike Coffman breaking the tie against the change.

A woman carries a sign during a parade to mark Juneteenth in Denver, which became a city holiday in Aurora this year. AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The economics of inclusion

The council also decided Oct. 8 to cut a vacant manager position in the city’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which was created in 2020. Councilmember Steve Sundberg suggested the cut, arguing that vacant positions offer the city the chance to save money.

On Monday, Sundberg again questioned whether the office could justify the position and its budgeted annual salary of $157,900.

“It reminds me of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” Sundberg said. “Two people were getting the work done, and it was just not defended to refill the position.”

Twombly told Murillo that the position was originally created to reduce the city’s dependence on consultants for training employees.

While many conservatives stood behind the cut, others, including local NAACP president Omar Montgomery, questioned how it reflected Aurora’s priorities as a city.

“We talk about the diversity in the City of Aurora. We brag about it,” said Montgomery, who spoke during public comment at Monday’s meeting. “But do we have the infrastructure and support for the diversity that we have? … I think the diversity office has shown, over time, that they have done amazing work in the city of Aurora. It is time to support those two offices.”

“A department or an office of three people is not that much,” Murillo said. “It’s like two steps forward with the creation (of the office) and one step back, like we’re not really, truly willing to fund the DEI office at the required staffing levels for it to be successful.”

Coombs proposed to restore the job cut from the city’s DEI office — that proposal failed, with the same group voting “no” that voted down the proposal to undo the police monitor cuts.

Explaining his vote against reversing the cut, the mayor said he wanted to better understand what the position was created to do and whether the office was accomplishing its goals before he would support adding the job back.

Coffman also said he thought the city was “biased” in favor of hiring employees rather than contractors who could do the same job less expensively and that the city should consider whether it would be better to hire a contractor instead.

Division 5 courtroom on Monday Dec. 12, 2016 at Aurora City Municipal Court.
Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Cuts for the defense

Close to $323,000 was also moved out of the budget of the city public defender’s office on Oct. 8, though council members did not consider reversing that cut on Monday. Chief Public Defender Doug Wilson said the amount was going to be used for additional attorneys, including one more to represent clients in the city’s weekend court.

Council members also accepted the recommendation of a subcommittee of the Citizens’ Advisory Budget Committee that the city analyze the costs of maintaining the city’s public defender’s office versus leaning more on the state or private attorneys for legal services.

Jono Scott — who chairs CBAC and volunteered for identifying cuts on the “efficiencies” subcommittee — said he believes changing how the city does business could save hundreds of dollars for each of the thousands of cases handled each year. 

Scott referenced the fact that Aurora is just one of two cities in Colorado, along with Denver, to operate its own public defender’s office. 

“All of those other cities, are they onto something?,” he asked. “We need public defenders. We’re not suggesting to get rid of public defense. That’s constitutional. That’s something we need. But what we’re asking is, ‘Can it be done in a more efficient way?’”

The public defender’s office serves adults in custody who earn 150% or less of the federal poverty guideline — which works out to $1,699 per month for a single person — or who receive federal assistance such as food stamps. Adult defendants facing the possibility of jail time are constitutionally entitled to representation in criminal court.

Domestic violence and motor vehicle theft are two jailable crimes that often wind up in district court in Colorado. But in Aurora, less severe domestic violence cases and car thefts may be charged as city code violations in the municipal court.

A September 2021 report on the office funded by a Department of Justice grant said domestic violence charges make up “the largest category of cases in the APDO’s workload.” The office is projected to handle 2,831 total cases, according to the city’s budget.

Scott said he divided the budgets of different agencies by their caseloads and found Aurora’s office was incurring more costs per case — dividing the office’s total adopted budget of about $1.9 million by the number of cases, each case handled by the Aurora office costs the city around $678.

By comparison, dividing the approximately $108.3 million budget of the state public defender’s office for the fiscal year ending in 2021 by the 159,292 cases handled by that office gives a per-case cost of $679.61.

Another model for public defense presented by Scott was Colorado Springs, which contracts with five private attorneys to defend indigent clients in its municipal court. Attorneys there are paid a flat fee of $175 for two hours of work.

Scott said (and a spokesman for Colorado Springs confirmed) that in the past two years, no attorney has been paid for working more than two hours on a case, although they were appointed 3,242 times last year.

“I just think there are more efficient ways of doing this,” Scott said. He also said that the majority of those cases are related to homelessness.

Wilson said he did not believe Colorado Springs was comparable, as that city’s court does not handle the serious and complex cases sometimes heard in Aurora’s municipal court.

Wilson said he also spoke with ​​Kimberly Simmons of the state’s ​​Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel, which represents defendants in cases where local public defender’s offices report a conflict of interest. Scott suggested the office could be approached about taking on more of Aurora’s cases.

In a written response to questions asked by council members, Wilson said the office charges $80 per hour with a per-case cap of $2,000 or $4,000, depending on the severity of the alleged crime.

He also said that, while the state public defender’s office has the authority to represent muni court defendants, it has never exercised that authority and is not fully staffed at present despite having an “enormous workload.” Wilson is personally familiar with that office, having worked in the state public defender’s office for more than a decade.

Scott’s suggestion is for the city to undertake a cost analysis of the public defender’s office, to see if it would be less expensive to rely more on the state or contract with attorneys like Colorado Springs.

Although they didn’t debate the issue Monday night, lawmakers are also divided over the idea of farming out the city’s public defenders. Councilmember Juan Marcano described Colorado Springs as a “plea mill,” alleging that the few hours spent on each case reflects a lack of investment by attorneys in their clients’ defense. 

“It creates a perverse incentive for legal representation in what is a constitutionally-mandated service,” Marcano said. “I’m hoping that this whole thing goes nowhere.”

A majority of council members rejected a request for $322,800 to fund defense attorneys during the budget workshop, and Councilmember Dustin Zvonek advocated in favor of the cost analysis, saying shifting to a model like Colorado Springs’ had the potential to eliminate overhead costs.

“We’re paying for everything instead of just what we need,” he said.

Zvonek suggested the requirement for weekend court was simply a scheduling challenge for the office, and Wilson questioned why the council granted the budgetary requests of other parts of the municipal court system related to weekend court if that was the case.

A third-party workload analysis of the public defender’s office undertaken this year found the office requires at least 12 full-time attorneys or their equivalents to handle the office’s caseload, and Wilson said two of the three additional attorneys were requested in light of the study.

Marcano likened the recommendation of the budget subcommittee to “tough-on-crime” policies sponsored recently by council conservatives, such as mandatory minimums for car theft and shoplifting. He argued that keeping Aurora’s public defenders in house would lead to better legal representation and that the call for a cost analysis was “politically motivated.”

It’s not the first time conservatives have targeted the public defender’s office for cuts. Wilson said attempts were made to privatize the functions of the office in the ’90s and 2000s. With the backing of the Arapahoe County GOP, Scott himself ran for the Ward III council seat that was won instead by progressive Ruben Medina in 2021.

Scott said the goal of the efficiencies subcommittee has never been to limit the scope or quality of the legal representation offered to defendants in the municipal court.

“I don’t want it to come across that we’re out to hurt people. That’s not my heart at all. What I think we’re doing, and can be done, is helping,” he said.

“I think it will help a lot of people, including the public defenders, but I’m aware now that the public defender’s office doesn’t think so. I’ve heard their perspective, and it’s a logical one, but there’s another side to it that’s logical.”

 

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Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
3 months ago

None of these areas should be cut and all affect the 99%, and especially the lower income residents of Aurora, these services are highly needed, and cuts here reflect a value by conservative-led Aurora Council to support only the 1%. In addition shows continued effort by that conservative-group to undermine over and over the vital efforts to reform the unqualified and badly-recruited/trained APD and improve APD services to reduce brutality, racism, and bad training around de-escalation. This effort by conservatives also undermines the APD effort to divert certain calls to different police program to handle mental health and wellness check – this effort has been very successful at handling calls with no injuries or deaths and needs to increase funding and efforts for this effort. Sad to see how uncaring and disconnected to real needs in Aurora are the conservatives.

Phil
Phil
3 months ago

The pseudo conservative wing is merely fulfilling their mandate.

The fbo and all other cops endorsed the majority to get rid of all that darned oversight. The incestuous powers that be agreed. It was really cramping their ability to wontonly murder.

Mission well on its way to accomplished with this budget.

They knew what they were doing. Conservatives have been manipulating tools like sondberg/zvonek/jurinsky to go against the will of the people for centuries.

They know full well this isn’t what we the people want. We the people want

-A robust public defender to protect us from police excess and racism

-De escalation tools/professionals already proven to reduce violent outcomes

-Officer and department accountability

We had these things and they were working.

We the people need to wake up and understand these conservatives are just another evil to be dealt with. Every generation faces evil. Here it is at home.

These conservatives do not care about you. They serve their own masters. They will hurt you if they can, and help each other get away with it.

Know this. Vote accordingly.

Hypocrisy Monitor
Hypocrisy Monitor
2 months ago
Reply to  Phil

You lost me at “We had these things and they were working.”

Kelly White
Kelly White
3 months ago

All Mr. McClain had to do was stop.
Diversity is not guaranteed on the Constitution.

Bart Emanuel
Bart Emanuel
3 months ago
Reply to  Kelly White

There’s a special place in hell for people like you.

K. Smith
K. Smith
3 months ago
Reply to  Kelly White

Sit this one out. You don’t need to tell everyone you’re ignorant.

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Kelly White

Equal rights are!!

Hypocrisy Monitor
Hypocrisy Monitor
2 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Get in line with your comrades, Dougie. Equitable rights are where it’s at.

Phil
Phil
3 months ago
Reply to  Kelly White

Wow, revolting. Victim blaming at this stage means you’re a committed delusional or a blue lives fanboy. Either way, gross 🤢 🤮

FactsOverFeelings
FactsOverFeelings
2 months ago
Reply to  Kelly White

What was that? I couldn’t hear you from behind your white sheet.

Don Black
Don Black
2 months ago
Reply to  Kelly White

You are right. All he had to do was stop. He committed a crime called obstruction that was created to enable the police to enforce the laws. It is sad that although he was an innocent person, no one had made it clear to him that he had a duty as a citizen to comply with police orders. Prosecution of the officers in this admitted tragedy is a miscarriage of justice that is obvious to all the other police officers. With the new police reform bill that created vague guidance, the police no longer stop anyone. It is no longer safe to do the job that protects people. We need to quit making excuses for people who decide that they don’t have to obey the laws. Without that understanding, everyone is in jeopardy. It applies to everyone from the January 6th rioters to the looters and anti police rioters.

Jennifer Roberts
Jennifer Roberts
2 months ago
Reply to  Don Black

The camera footage shows officers grabbing Elijah McClain within seconds. Putting your hands on somebody is not acceptable police procedure when there is no evidence of a crime. He was not armed. He spent the entire interaction trying to explain that he was different than other people but he was not trying to hurt them and he ended up dead.

I think it is important to understand what the community is saying. Groups of people in our community are legitimately frightened of people who have power to hurt them without oversight, and I hear you suggesting that is their fault.

I grew up with a father in law enforcement and I loved him with all of my heart. I worried every day that he would be hurt in the line of duty. Our next door neighbor was killed in the line of duty when I was seven, and that will influence my perspective on the world the rest of my life. That doesn’t mean that I can’t listen to other people when they have legitimate concerns and work to make changes to keep them safe.

This budget process is shameful.

Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown
3 months ago

As a radically pragmatic independent moderate, I fully agree with Jono Scott’s recommendations to focus on efficiency in the public defender function.

What seems to be lacking in this discussion is acknowledgement that our city government is chronically underfunded due to insufficient retail activity (sales tax is the city’s primary source of revenue). The problem is exacerbated as the city adds more residents without bringing retail up.

CABC has repeatedly identified entertainment as the economic sector where the city has the most opportunity to drive revenue improvement. CABC has also highlighted the many quality-of-life gains to be had in investing in venues— from neighborhood band shells to a large performing arts center suitable for our high school graduations.

We already pay for such venues via the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District .1% sales tax and have for over 30 years. But over 90% gets spent elsewhere and for that I hold our delegation at the Capitol, our city counsel, and the bodies that have allegedly protect Aurora’s business interests over the past 30 years directly responsible.

The three-tier formula used to distribute SCFD funds has operated as a literal Ponzi scheme favoring Denver’s big 5 while the number of small organizations across the seven counties has skyrocketed.

I know this is tough for some to accept. The SCFD’s PR campaign over the past 30+ years has been most effective. And clearly, party fundraisers both Dem and GOP love the social networking afforded by the Denver’s big five. Nevertheless, it’s time for Aurora to exit SCFD and revitalize it’s economy, culture and community.

We have work to do.

Joe
Joe
3 months ago

These are precisely the types of programs, along with education and mental health, that we as a society need on the back side to help make a dent in crime. Many of us can see that those on the council who voted to defund are not really the “law-and-order” champions that their supporters claim.

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Joe

Of course they arent

Phil
Phil
3 months ago
Reply to  Joe

Well said

Michael L Moore
Michael L Moore
3 months ago

Like all conservatives in the three states I’ve lived in, they want to arrest more people and then deny a sufficient number of defense attorneys. Same old stuff!

Hypocrisy Monitor
Hypocrisy Monitor
2 months ago

It’s pretty easy really to avoid arrest. Don’t break the law. Then you won’t need a defense attorney, paid by you or paid by taxpayers.

Zero
Zero
2 months ago

It’s the 6th amendment of the US Constitution, HM. I know you’ve probably never been able to read the whole thing because you can’t see through your rabid haze when you go completely feral over amendments 1 and 2, but maybe try it from back to front sometime so that you can read all 27.

Also, here’s a real wild idea for you to chew on: sometimes, people get arrested, accused, harassed for things they didn’t even do! Sometimes very manipulatable people, who have been turned rabid with fear of their neighbors by brain rot like Fox News and conservative radio, don’t know actual laws at all and they try to get their neighbors arrested for things that aren’t even illegal. Sometimes people get over charged to intimidate them into taking a plea on a lesser charge. Sometimes something that looks like assault turns out to be self-defense. I know you WANT to worship cops as infallible gods and they sure want it, too, but they’re just people (or thumbs) who make mistakes all the time. Checks and balances are a whole thing.

Last quick question for you about law & order and taxpayers and attorneys – remember when your little angel, Danielle Jurinsky, broke the city charter and then forced the taxpayers to pay for her expensive attorneys? Just checking, you think she should have avoided that by not breaking the charter and then not using city money to pay for her defense, right?

Doug
Doug
3 months ago

I read this and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Just seems like it really hasn’t been thought through.

DICK MOORE
DICK MOORE
2 months ago

I internally laugh at the socialists on City Council, this Sentinel Blog/newspaper, Dave Perry, Debra MacKillop, Doug King, Joe Felice and most other left wing commenters on this blog. After the next Aurora Council election, your unamerican and socialistic voices will be completely silenced but, I suppose, your complete hatred for me and other Conservatives will continue to be real but still silenced as the Sentinel will be bankrupt and gone.

I and so many others happily await that time. Your political pain has only just begun.

Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown
2 months ago
Reply to  DICK MOORE

Or the people of Aurora will wise up and elect several pragmatic centrists to council because they know all the name-calling and pontification by those acting so high and mighty ISN’T what Aurora needs.

After WWII, the US launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe’s industry. If today’s hard-core conservatives had their way then, this wouldn’t have happened and Communism would have taken serious hold in France, Germany, etc. No.

Its time for the rationale middle to speak up.

HERB
HERB
2 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Brown

Sounds like a campaign speech, Jeff. You running?

Dean68
Dean68
2 months ago
Reply to  DICK MOORE

Dick I totally understand, however I think you are overly optimistic about the widespread wokeism generation and their demographic voter choices will make in Aurora. The whole county has flipped into a high-falutin political-dark ages. We have our dose of hard charger SJW council members and expect not to see much change. Example Affirmative Action is in the US Supreme court this week. We have a council woman promoting to continue a program that a well-seasoned judge doesn’t seem to understand what it is. Regrettably, I think voters will feed into more of the survival of Coombs, and the Marcano’s kind of thinking. And Dick, it is totally bizarre.
But. your comment about this paper, this thing is a different animal, politics does not keep it alive. And unlike politics Its survival is in its ability to produce a wanted and desired product. Solid business models drop things that no longer make economic sense. If not, the mother ship goes down as well. The purpose of the corporation is to produce something the people want and willing to pay, this one is suffering its own slow suicide.

,” Councilmember Alison Coombs said after unsuccessfully proposing to restore the position cut from the diversity office”.

“I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means,” “Justice Clarence Thomas told an attorney representing the University of North Carolina who tried to explain the educational benefits of diversity in defending the school’s admissions program.”