James Mejia owes a lot to his boss, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. And now Webb is asking much in return: He wants Mejia to clean up the city's scandal-ridden parks and recreation department and, in the process, protect the mayor's own legacy.
The stakes are high. Webb, who is serving his third and final term, sees an improved park system as one of the defining achievements of his administration. But the past year has been a disaster on that front. It has brought a steady stream of newspaper stories about top managers spending public money extravagantly, an audit that disclosed widespread financial mismanagement, and ultimately the conviction of four employees on embezzlement charges. It has undermined--if it has not ruined--the mayor's hopes of being remembered for strengthening Denver's park system.
Mejia, 34, brings a squeaky-clean reputation to his new job as manager of the troubled department. A graduate of Notre Dame with an MBA from Arizona State, he served as trade specialist for Latin America under former Governor Roy Romer, and then as president of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He was director of the Human Rights office and deputy director of Economic Development in the Webb administration.
He also boasts an unusually close relationship with the mayor. Both come from humble beginnings; the mayor developed an interest in parks while growing up in a housing development without a yard, while Mejia is the ninth of 13 children raised by a mother who was a consultant to Head Start and a father who taught in the Denver public schools. Webb supported Mejia's successful campaign for the Denver school board. "The mayor stumped for him, raised money for him, introduced him and gave him his contributor list," recalls Rosemary Rodriguez, Denver's city clerk. "He doesn't open his coffers for everybody. It's almost a mentoring kind of relationship."
Mejia has moved quickly to restore confidence in the parks department, meeting with each member of the city council, developing 30-day, 60-day and 90-day "action plans" for reforming department procedures, and preparing a public database to track his progress in achieving goals spelled out in the plans. He has hosted two community events to celebrate a new skateboard park, and worked with crews to prune trees and rake debris from city parks--important steps for a department where morale had hit rock bottom.
But a bigger challenge may involve redefining the department's relationship with Mayor Webb, who hasn't paid much attention to the department's leaders in the past. While pursuing his own objectives-- including the city's acquisition of 1,100 acres of parkland from the former Stapleton Airport and the conversion of a series of junkyards along the South Platte River into a new recreation area--the mayor waited almost a year after the first disclosures of criminal activity before shaking up the department's management. And he paid dearly for the drift. Apparently unaware of public sentiment, he stirred howls of protest--and quickly retreated--when non-park officials proposed selling Denver's city-owned ski area and removing 60-year-old juniper trees lining the city's natural outdoor amphitheater to install corporate box seats. "The Department of Parks and Recreation has not been assertive enough," says Carolyn Etter, who co-managed the department under former Mayor Federico Pena during the late 1980s and early '90s.
Ultimately, Mejia's ability to rescue the mayor's legacy may boil down to this: Will the mayor let his protege play an independent role in setting policy? And will the student stand up to his mentor and tell him what he needs to hear? "The mayor and I agree philosophically on the direction of city government and this department," Mejia says. "He has my respect and admiration, and I'd like to believe I have his trust."