Mayor Mike Johnston unveiled the first draft of his 2024 city budget on September 14, 2023. Over his shoulder stands Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas who Johnston renominated for that role on Nov. 14. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Four months into his tenure as Denver’s mayor, Mike Johnston still has holes to fill on his administration’s leadership chart and is trailing his predecessor in building out his cabinet.
Johnston’s slower pace of naming appointees — including several for key cabinet-level positions charged with helping shape public safety, development and infrastructure in the city — has caught the attention of political observers.
“It’s surprising,” said Paul Teske, the dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs. “Watching Mike over the years, he’s always had smart people working with him. He’s a very well-networked guy.”
Of 60 appointed positions under the mayor’s control, 11 were either vacant or occupied by interim or acting leaders as of Friday, according to a list provided by the administration. Five of them are positions spelled out in the city charter.
The missing pieces include permanent leaders for three cabinet-level agencies — the Department of Public Health and Environment, the Department of Community Planning and Development, and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Two safety posts are still occupied by holdovers from the administration of former Mayor Michael Hancock, with Sheriff Elias Diggins and Fire Chief Desmond Fulton now serving in those roles on an acting basis. They could be renominated or replaced by Johnston.
Delays in filling leadership roles could slow down the rollout of new ideas or result in a lack of clear direction on policies, Teske said. General inertia is another risk.
Johnston has big goals when it comes to housing. He aims to see 3,000 units of affordable housing created or preserved in Denver every year. The city’s Department of Housing Stability, which was created during Hancock’s tenure, has released a draft action plan for 2024.
But for now, that department is being led by an interim director, local real estate developer Susan Powers, whom Johnston appointed on a temporary basis in August.
It’s another high-profile role awaiting a permanent appointee.
“That person’s job is really about creating a unified strategy, combining all city, state and federal funding sources,” Johnston said during an interview with The Denver Post last month. “We’ve got to find creative ways to finance (housing), because we know this is two to three times more units than the city’s ever done before — so this is an even more ambitious goal, probably” than his out-of-the gate House 1,000 homelessness initiative.
In that same interview, conducted two days after Johnston marked his 100th day in office on Oct. 25, Johnston acknowledged that he had work left to do in filling out his cabinet.
“We’ve made great progress, but it’s not done yet,” he said.
In 2011, within his first 100 days in office, Hancock appointed people to all but two charter-mandated cabinet posts in his administration. He went on to serve three terms.
Despite having those three open cabinet positions — along with the fire and sheriff positions — Johnston has made up some ground in recent weeks.
He has nominated Al Gardner, another candidate in this year’s mayoral race, to lead the general services department. He renominated Molly Duplechian to head the Department of Excise and Licenses. Johnston also has chosen to retain Armando Saldate as the city’s director of safety and Ron Thomas as chief of the Denver Police Department, though those decisions weren’t announced until last week.
Those appointments are among 14 positions subject to City Council approval under the charter. Votes on some of Johnston’s earlier nominees, including City Attorney Kerry Tipper and Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington, both originally appointed by Hancock, should reach the council floor in the next few weeks.
After a slow start, Johnston’s decision to keep so many of Hancock’s top officials has drawn attention, including from some supporters — such as former mayoral rival Lisa Calderón — who had hoped to see more change from the previous administration.
Early on, Johnston did announce several new faces for the mayor’s office, including Chief of Staff Jenn Ridder and Deputy Chief of Staff Dominick Moreno, who stepped down as Colorado’s Senate majority leader.
While Teske said there was no standard for how quickly mayors should fill out their cabinets, the nearly six weeks between when Johnston was elected on June 6 and when he was sworn in on July 17 was a tighter span than Colorado governors and U.S. presidents typically have, though not significantly so.
Johnston’s intense focus on addressing street homelessness, starting with an emergency declaration on his first full day in office, could be distracting him from making appointments, Teske said. But it also might be a matter of having a tough time identifying qualified candidates.
“There is probably a good argument that waiting a month to have right person is better than maybe a month earlier with not the right person,” he said.
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