Politics

Sudden City

Deciding how to run a newly incorporated city inevitably ignites debate over the role and responsibilities of government.
by | November 2001

Until a few years ago, people in unincorporated parts of Arapahoe County, Colorado, didn't want much from government. In fact, they preferred having no government at all. But when the city of Greenwood Village moved to annex a large swath of their commercial land, they came together in a surprising burst of civic activism.

In a region where citizens' allegiances had never run beyond the local level, they held 100 regional "town meetings" to argue that forming their own city would be preferable to "taxation without representation." Volunteers spent most Saturdays for two-and-a-half years buttonholing neighbors at grocery stores to discuss the esoteric details of annexation and incorporation. The idea caught on: Even though most residents had moved to the area to escape city government and high taxes, yards sprouted with 19,000 signs, and mailboxes and bulletin boards were blanketed with 250,000 brochures extolling the proposal to create a new level of government.

The campaign, which also included hard-won victories in the state legislature and state Supreme Court, paid off in September 2000, when a lopsided 77 percent of voters approved the creation of Centennial, the largest newly incorporated city in American history.

Now comes the hard part. Proud of their success as a single-interest political movement, Centennial's new leaders are trying to mold a population of 104,000 spread over 36 square miles of suburban neighborhoods, shopping malls, car dealerships and office parks into a cohesive community capable of shaping its own future. And they are trying to accomplish this with no established bureaucracy, almost no professional help and a public known mostly for its hostility to government. Even some of the most ardent advocates of incorporation see bumps in the road ahead. "We used to think of ourselves as the Wild West: We prided ourselves on our freedom and minimal government intrusion in our lives," says John Brackney, an Arapahoe County commissioner and one of the early proponents of incorporation. "Now, we have agreed it makes sense to form a city, but there are going to be huge battles about what kind of government we have."

Centennial's saga, and that of many other newly incorporated cities like it, offer fresh proof of Americans' continuing commitment to local self-government. "In the United States, we take for granted the idea that local governments have the right to incorporate, raise revenues and decide what their own priorities are. Most other countries don't have that right," notes Don Borut, director of the National League of Cities. But newly incorporated cities may offer other lessons as well. In pursuing the dream of home rule, they provide a new evidence of what people want from government today--and what government can rightly expect from citizens. And they illustrate the challenges that many local leaders face in turning recently developed areas with little tradition, amorphous boundaries and mobile populations into functioning communities.

Mayor Randy Pye and his eight-member city council have strong convictions about these issues. In their "city of the future," citizens will have an unusual degree of control over their government. The government, in turn, will be small--so lean, in fact, that it will be almost invisible. Private companies will deliver most public services. There will be no city hall, a bare minimum of city ordinances and no army of code enforcers to intrude in people's lives. It will be a "virtual city," says Pye, a veteran of the incorporation campaign.

The key to achieving these goals, Centennial's leaders believe, will be preserving the sense of citizen involvement that fueled the drive for incorporation. Accordingly, they hope to rely far less on public employees and professional managers than is common in more established jurisdictions. "In most cities, we have made government so bureaucratic, so professional and so sophisticated that the average citizen says it's too hard to understand," explains Mark Achen, the city services coordinator, Centennial's term for city manager. "So citizens feel considerably distanced from government, if not disenfranchised." His advice to the people of Centennial: "Govern yourselves, or somebody else will."

To keep citizens in the driver's seat, Centennial regularly invites them to serve in policy-making posts. Many cities name private citizens to blue-ribbon panels or study groups, of course, but these panels often operate at the margins of real decision making. Centennial, on the other hand, asks its citizen volunteers to work shoulder-to-shoulder with city council members on standing committees. The city advertises the non-paying jobs, takes applications and interviews applicants before deciding whom to accept.

"We ask them if they have a life, and if they say, `Yes,' we tell them we're sorry but they aren't qualified," jokes Betty Ann Habig, an organizational effectiveness consultant and special education teacher who heads the city's Financial Services and Budget Committee. She is referring to the substantial amount of time--30 or 40 hours a week-- Centennial's "part-time" leaders have been devoting to getting their city started.

Direct citizen participation in government is just one in a series of steps Centennial hopes will alter the expectations people have of their government. "The whole relationship has to change because it is dysfunctional," says Brian Vogt, president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and one of Centennial's founding fathers. "We have dumbed down the role of citizen to the point people think their only role is to ask for stuff. Government then acts as if we'll be satisfied if we're just thrown enough bones. It's almost a parent- child relationship."

A better approach, Vogt believes, is to keep citizens focused on the big picture. Continuing a tradition started during the incorporation drive, city leaders held a series of town meetings this summer to explain the city's financial situation. The caliber of the discussions has been "awe-inspiring," says Vogt. "They are thoughtful. They represent everything America is supposed to be. If people understand what revenues look like and what things cost, they'll understand that their individual pressures on government can create a budget problem, and maybe they'll think twice about all their demands."

Centennial's leaders, meanwhile, routinely encourage citizens to stop thinking of themselves as consumers of government services, and instead to be more self-reliant. They have had plenty of opportunity to rein in expectations. Shortly after the city opened for business, an irate elderly woman called asking the city to pick up her old couch, even though Centennial has no intention of collecting trash. A long-time resident almost begged the council to do something about a neighbor who was starting up his diesel truck at 5:30 each morning, waking other families and polluting their air. Another resident demanded that the city force a neighbor to remove a tomato garden from an unused city right-of-way so that he could drive his boat trailer on it.

In response, city officials sympathize and offer suggestions but usually urge the citizens to try to solve their own problems--to hire a private trash hauler, for instance, talk to the irksome neighbor and try to find a compromise concerning the garden. "The last thing we want to do is pass an ordinance to solve a problem for one person that will apply to everybody," says Mayor Pye.

Finally, Centennial hopes to contract with private companies to provide services to a greater extent than ever tried by a city of its size. Indeed, in Pye's vision, Centennial will employ only a couple of dozen people, who will spend most of their time supervising private contractors. By comparison, if the city were to provide public works, law enforcement, planning, zoning and court services with its own employees, it easily could need a work force of 700 or more. Contracting has obvious appeal to newly forming cities since it enables them to avoid heavy expenditures on capital equipment and to externalize complex hiring and labor decisions. But more important, Centennial believes it will help make the costs of various services much more explicit, and thus facilitate democratic decision making.

Cities that provide services directly are prone to mission creep, explains Achen, the city services coordinator. The process begins with the informal addition of modest new duties to a department's agenda. At first, existing employees take on the new responsibilities, but over time, as existing staff become overloaded, new people get hired. Eventually this shows up as an increase in personnel costs, not necessarily as a decision to provide new services. As a result, the increase can occur without policy makers ever considering whether the new activities are worthwhile. When government negotiates with private contractors, on the other hand, such costs are more explicit. Anytime the city wants a new service, the contractor sets a price. As a result, policy makers will be forced to consider the cost implications.

That's the theory, at least. Whether Centennial succeeds in being a "contract city" to the extent it envisions remains to be seen. No other city has yet pulled it off on such a scale, and the city isn't certain yet how many contractors will come forward to bid on various city services.

While focusing so far on matters such as citizen participation and contracting, Centennial's leaders admit they have only begun to address bigger issues. Like a number of today's new cities, Centennial is a mature suburb that has grown largely independent of the downtown that spawned it. And, like other well-established suburbs, it is starting to have concerns once associated with older cities. For one thing, it has significant infrastructure problems. Centennial is essentially a large rectangle running about 16 miles from west to east and three miles north to south. The older, western end includes neighborhoods that were built 40 years ago with inadequate storm water drainage systems--or none at all; Arapahoe County puts the price tag for modernizing the system at around $60 million. On the newer, eastern end of the city, meanwhile, road construction hasn't kept pace with growth. And Arapahoe Road, the main artery connecting the two sides of town, suffers severe traffic congestion.

That's not all. The city faces "an exploding powder keg of minor problems that the county never addressed," says Bart Miller, a member of the city council's Public Works Committee. Some residents, arguing that the plethora of private trash collectors are causing undue wear to neighborhood streets, think the city should get into the trash- hauling business. There is considerable interest in stricter zoning enforcement (Arapahoe County has just one zoning inspector for its entire 480,000 population; Greenwood Village, with just 12,000 people, has eight). As the city and the surrounding county fill up, there's talk about preserving open space. Residents want more traffic lights. Some people want more aggressive snow plowing in the winter. One neighborhood wants a new bridge because heavy rains periodically cover its only access road.

And some people believe the city may face an even more profound day of reckoning. Although it is prospering at the moment, Centennial faces competition both from newer suburbs farther to the east and from downtown Denver, which is attracting more and more young professionals, empty nesters and others away from older suburbs. Two new malls have opened in Denver in recent years, and Arapahoe County Commissioner Brackney, for one, worries about their possible impact on Southglenn Mall, one of the anchors of Centennial's economy. His concern is easy to understand: Cinderella City in nearby Englewood, once the largest enclosed mall west of the Mississippi, went belly up during the late 1990s. Englewood seems to have weathered the loss quite well, thanks mostly to the aggressive intervention of city government, which spearheaded a large-scale redevelopment effort. County governments lack the flexibility to undertake such projects, says Brackney, who despite strong conservative inclinations pushed for incorporation to create a government nimble and powerful enough to address such crises should they arise.

Can Centennial's government muster the consensus needed to address such issues? At the moment, it would have a hard time. For one thing, despite the vote to incorporate, many Centennial voters haven't fully embraced the idea of having a city government. Many favored incorporation mainly to stave off an annexation attempt by neighboring Greenwood Village, not because they were eager to create another level of government. "People said, `Leave us alone,'" observes Sue Rosser, an activist who helped organize her neighborhood and worked with other incorporation advocates to lobby citizens at grocery stores. "Now, the question is, `Did they want to be left alone by Greenwood Village, or by everybody?'"

What's more, the city remains largely an abstraction to many residents. There's no industry to give it an identity in the way that steel, automobiles or ports have created a sense of uniqueness for other cities. It has no downtown, no Main Street, no civic center and no monuments to local heroes. Although its neighborhoods are all handsomely upscale, and its commercial areas are modern and well maintained, it has no distinctive architecture or special features that set it apart in the sprawling urban region southeast of Denver.

Nor will it have a city hall to symbolize and inspire community- mindedness. Committed to a small and efficient government, Pye and his colleagues shun the idea of building a gleaming government center for Centennial; city officials currently work out of a tiny basement suite temporarily donated by a bank, and city leaders expect to continue operating in leased space for some time. Moreover, they seem philosophically inclined to leave development to the private developers, a view that would seem to preclude them from creating the kind of civic centers that serve as community gathering places in other localities. (In Englewood, for instance, the city acquired the Cinderella Mall and redeveloped it as a city center; the new anchor tenants include the city government's own offices.)

Centennial's strongest community rallying point may be its own stirring, though brief, history. The incorporation drive created an outpouring of excitement and civic awareness. But with as much as 30 percent of the population turning over every year, a substantial portion of residents soon will have no memory of the city's inspiring birth. "People here have no loyalty to any city," says Paul Schauer, who represented the area in the state legislature for 19 years before having to give up his seat because of term limits in 1998. "It remains to be seen if they will get to a point they say, `Who and what is Centennial?'"

Unfortunately, it isn't easy to have a public discussion of that issue in Centennial today. The city gets little regular coverage in the Denver media, which have to cover three dozen municipalities, half a dozen counties, a host of special purpose districts and a metropolitan council of governments. While Centennial has two fledgling newspapers, they have a combined circulation numbering in the hundreds. Centennial has looked at using cable television to overcome this disadvantage, but the cost has deterred it at least until its finances are on a firmer footing. Cost considerations also have slowed the city from realizing hopes to use the Internet to become a sort of electronic democracy with a highly interactive Web site, streaming video of public meetings and possibly even online forums for citizens.

Considering these circumstances, it may not be surprising that Centennial's leaders have moved cautiously in their first year. They haven't developed plans for dealing with the city's infrastructure problems, for instance, and they asked the voters to approve a sales tax of just 1.5 percent--about half the prevailing rate in most other Colorado cities and well below what many believe the city will need. But to their credit, they do recognize that Centennial's ultimate success depends on building a sense of community. When they were first forming their government, for instance, they opted to carve the city into just four wards, the smallest number allowed under Colorado law. "We didn't want division and gridlock," says council member Habig. "After all, we're trying to create a common culture." Mayor Pye, meanwhile, proposes that the next round of town meetings focus on creating a "vision" for what Centennial should be.

When those sessions begin, one member of the audience is certain to be Joan Johnson. She was one of the faithful band of volunteers who fought for incorporation. But after Centennial was formed, she didn't join some of her comrades in seeking a government post. Instead, she has continued to be a tireless and totally committed private citizen. Today, whenever the city council meets, she's there. Whenever there's a town meeting, she's there. She also pops up regularly at the city's offices. And, perhaps most significant, she has started a Web site--C- Watch--that provides exhaustive coverage of the new city and its government.

C-Watch already has had an impact, although it isn't one most city officials are happy about. Early in the city's life, Mayor Pye and the council sought to give the then-city clerk a full-time job as the city's office manager. C-Watch blew the whistle, questioning whether it was appropriate to hire somebody without any kind of competitive hiring process. The clerk ultimately withdrew, and resigned her elective position as well. There were some hard feelings, but Johnson, for one, is unrepentant. The city council, she says, is too cohesive and insulated. It's starting to forget its citizen roots. Like any government, it needs public scrutiny.

That's why Johnson says she didn't join government herself. Citizens- -not professionals or even elected officials--created Centennial, she notes, and they must continue to have a strong hand in running it now. "What I do is more important than being part of the government," Johnson insists. "How the city is formed in the next few years will determine its culture for years to come."

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Christopher Conte  |  Former Correspondent
crconte@earthlink.net  | 

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