Grand Junction’s gadfly
There are two things in local government that Dennis Simpson despises: going into debt without voter approval and what he calls “backroom deals.”
If he suspects either is planned or happening, you can bet the part-time certified public accountant will be there, tuned in during midday meetings of the Grand Junction City Council or speaking out during the public comment portion of nighttime public hearings.
Lately, Simpson, along with other watchdogs, have worked to expose longtime accounting runarounds of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights within Mesa County government. Simpson also has trained his eye on a perceived runaround of TABOR at the city level. Since focusing his gaze at City Hall, he launches his requests for information at a rapid-fire pace.
Simpson’s efforts have earned him a stiff-arm from the City Council.
Weary from a flurry of Colorado Open Records Act requests about the city’s TABOR calculations to which the city feels it has adequately responded, and after a number of personal meetings with Simpson over TABOR issues, councilors have directed city staff to rebuff any more meetings with him about TABOR.
Grand Junction Mayor Sam Susuras characterized Simpson’s interactions with city staff as a form of harassment.
“He has the right to ask for any records that he wants through the Open Records Act,” Susuras said. “Once he gets it, he calls (city staff) stupid or liars. I just don’t want him harassing staff. He is taking hours and hours of our time.”
Simpson is adamant that he doesn’t resort to name-calling. He also says he continues to seek public records on historical accounting calculations because he doesn’t believe, as city staff have told him, that they don’t exist. Simpson insists those documents do exist because he’s requested them in the past and has received them.
“I’ve never personally insulted anybody,” Simpson said. “I’ve been maybe less than politically correct, but I’ve never lost my cool entirely.”
When the call goes out for public comments at the beginning and end of a City Council meeting, the air sometimes is so still you can hear paper rustling. Some workshops are so mundane that nobody — except those on the city’s payroll — shows up to protest or advocate. But when a financial issue catches his attention, Simpson takes a seat with perked ears. With a determined look, he’ll take to the podium to declare his stance.
Since getting involved in the build-up to the Grand Junction Fire Department taking over ambulance services in 2006, Simpson said his vigilance has helped sway opinions.
“The time I put in, I view as community service,” Simpson said over coffee recently. “I feel the normal citizen doesn’t get represented.”
Problems can arise, Simpson said, when city councilors only receive one viewpoint from city staff and policies are voted in without question. He also thinks councilors often represent a dangerous combination of possessing enough confidence to run for political office but insufficient knowledge to grasp the intricacies of city government.
“They don’t know, but they don’t want to act like they don’t know,” Simpson said, referring to what can happen with city councilors.
Councilor Bennett Boeschenstein said he is somewhat torn over Simpson’s involvement. Boeschenstein said during his years of working on the inside of local governments there always seems to be at least one citizen who shadows public officials.
“He’s a smart guy. I respect his opinions,” Boeschenstein said of Simpson. “I’m glad he’s out there. I always appreciate someone in the public who is a watchdog. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad.”
However, Boeschenstein said Simpson crossed a line when he said City Attorney John Shaver had not told the truth during the comment period of a July 3 City Council meeting.
“I don’t appreciate that at all. John is not a liar,” Boeschenstein said of Simpson’s comment. “That’s totally uncalled for and very disrespectful of our staff. We kind of asked (City Manager) Rich Englehart to not let him monopolize their time.”
Simpson claims he did not call Shaver a liar but said Shaver was not telling councilors the truth that the city began changing its TABOR calculations in 2007. Simpson said he has proof that the city has been recalculating its TABOR calculations since at least 1999. And he contends neither Shaver nor other city staff has since repeated the 2007 TABOR recalculation claim, the reason Simpson said he made the accusatory comment in the first place.
On another front, the council has long had a policy not to respond to public comments during council meetings. Councilors sometimes will refer a citizen to a city staff member to help solve a problem. However, most comments are met with silence. Simpson said such a policy makes it appear that councilors disregard or don’t care about citizens’ concerns.
“I think it’s an insult to any citizen, not just me,” Simpson said. “People who are thoughtful shouldn’t be treated like this. It’s why not many people go to City Council — those who do get this treatment. If you do get involved they say you’ve got enough of our time.”
CITY LARGELY MUM
City Manager Englehart and City Attorney Shaver declined to be interviewed about Simpson and his specific assertions. Englehart did respond in an email that Simpson has brought about some changes at the city.
“We have met with Mr. Simpson on a number of issues over the years and I have been involved in only a couple of those meetings since taking this position,” Englehart said about coming into his role as city manager from deputy city manager. “Some of his concerns have certainly been acted on and thus resulted in administrative action.”
Englehart, though, said Simpson has shown a lack of respect toward Shaver, him and other city staff, and that’s “not something that we see benefit to having reported in the paper.”
HOMING IN ON DEBT
Aside from the TABOR issue, two certificates of participation, or COPs, issued by the city in recent years have captivated Simpson’s attention.
These certificates serve as a funding mechanism for governments to finance projects, similar to a mortgage on a home.
Soon after Grand Junction voters in 2008 denied a $98 million public safety center plan, the city’s seven councilors backed a plan to pay for a pared-down $33 million center using a 30-year COP. After 30 years of payments, including the interest, the cost of the public safety center will have doubled to about $66 million.
The city used a similar funding model to pay for $7 million in improvements for the Lincoln Park Tower.
Simpson said it’s not that he’s against public safety investments, but “I don’t think it should be seven people who vote on it,” he said. “COPs come up after an election fails. It’s insulting. People don’t admit that this is just about debt. We have to pay every dime worth of interest and the principal.”
Councilor Jim Doody is in his seventh year in two separate terms on the council, often sitting at the dais when Simpson speaks or is included in email correspondence with him.
It was Simpson’s accusation that Shaver lied that prompted Doody to ask Shaver and Englehart not to entertain any more TABOR talks with Simpson.
“When he gets in front of City Council and accuses my employees of lying, I’m done with him,” Doody said. “These are the two highest-paid positions in the city (city manager and city attorney) and they’ve got a big workload.”
Meanwhile, Simpson has criticized Doody for what Simpson calls “backroom deals.” That would include the councilor’s motion June 2012 to triple a contribution to the Avalon Theatre from $1 million to $3 million, a move that appeared to come out of nowhere.
Doody said he came to the realization during a prior meeting that Avalon renovations probably wouldn’t occur if the city didn’t pledge more than $1 million.
“I threw it out there and here we are,” Doody said.
Avalon renovations are under way. The new City Council begrudgingly spent more money than they had anticipated to get the project rolling.
Doody said he is open to talking with Simpson about matters other than TABOR. He thinks Simpson has received enough information from city staff on that issue.
“It is difficult,” Doody said about dealing with Simpson at council meetings. “He does have a scowl on his face. He’s mad. He does have a different opinion.”
Being outspoken at City Hall has cost him some business at his CPA firm, Simpson said. Potential clients have told him as much.
In general, Simpson said he feels misunderstood.
“While some people may agree with me, I may be perceived as some sort of a wacko,” he said. “They think I’m a right-wing conservative on all issues and I’m not.”