Hentzell Park: City's rejection of petition spurs new challenge

Debra Johnson.
They started out questioning the ability of Denver city officials to trade a formerly designated natural area for an office building. But opponents of the Hentzell Park land swap now have another bone to pick with Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, claiming that her rejection of their efforts to put the issue on the ballot amounts to playing high-stakes poker with a stacked deck. The dispute, they say, raises a basic constitutional issue: What happens to the right to petition the government for redress if you need the government's permission to do so?

As we've previously reported, Mayor Michael Hancock wants to turn over 11.5 acres of city-owned open space adjoining Paul A. Hentzell Park in southeast Denver to the Denver Public Schools. DPS wants to build an elementary school there to take the pressure off overcrowded schools in the area. In return, the city would take over a DPS building at 13th and Fox and convert it to a "family justice center," housing various agencies that provide services to domestic violence victims.

hentzel park.jpg
Hentzell Park.
Overruling the recommendation of her own advisory board, Denver Parks and Recreation manager Lauri Dannemiller agreed to formally remove the "natural area" designation for the site, which Hancock has described as "blighted" and overrun with prairie dogs; about two acres of the site is currently a parking lot. The Denver City Council approved the deal in April.

But critics of the transaction, including some residents of the area and former park officials, say the site is one of the last remnants of a prairie ecosystem in the city limits and a key connectivity point for wildlife in the Cherry Creek corridor. In May, a newly formed group called Friends of Denver Parks launched a petition drive to put the matter to a public vote. After Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson rejected the paperwork for the referendum drive, the group sued Johnson and the city.

Friends of Denver Parks attorney John Case maintains that the area is part of a 26-acre parcel known as "Hampden Heights North Park" that was purchased by the city in 1936. Although it was never actually declared a park by ordinance, various city maps and signs have referred to the area as a park, and longtime residents of the area testified that they'd relied on representations by city officials (including one 1979 letter from Mayor Bill McNichols) that the area would remain undeveloped.

On Friday, Denver District Judge Herbert Stern denied Case's request for an injunction to halt the swap. Case is appealing that decision, and he's also launched a constitutional challenge to Johnson's rejection last week of the group's referendum petitions, containing 6,664 signatures -- which, if valid, would be enough to put the issue on the November ballot.

In her letter rejecting the signatures, Johnson explains that the city charter prohibits gathering signatures until her office has approved the petition affidavit, sample and ballot title. Johnson points out her office already rejected the ballot title, ruling that Case's group has no standing to challenge the land transaction, which she and the city attorney have defended as an "administrative" rather than "legislative" action.

Continue for more about the latest developments in the Hentzell Park story, including the amended complaint.

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RobertChase topcommenter

Denver's government is very much less competent and very much less accountable than the very dim majority of Democratic voters have any inkling.  The City's arrogance in trying to evade the requirement of our Charter that the public approve of the disposal of public property demonstrates how incredibly alienated Denver's governing institutions are from the Law and from common sense.  More power to the Friends of Denver Parks; may they soon prevail over our unrepresentative government!  Johnson should resign.

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