Can Tim O’Brien Fill Dennis Gallagher’s Very Large Shoes?

It appears that the office tasked with watchdogging Denver’s strong-mayor form of government is done holding the city’s feet to the fire over its agreement with the Colorado Department of Transportation that commits $83 million to widening I-70 in exchange for badly needed flood protection.

Dennis Gallagher
Dennis Gallagher
Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 4.10.10 PM
Tim O’Brien

Former Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher understood that making essential infrastructure upgrades contingent on a highway expansion near Swansea Elementary School was wrong. (As one resident put it, “Would you rather choke or drown?”) That’s why he refused to sign the contract last month, on the first day of Mayor Michael Hancock’s second term.

Apparently the gesture was in vain. The Denver Post’s Jon Murray reports that Denver’s new auditor, Tim O’Brien, signed the agreement yesterday:

His statement explained his decision: “As part of the ‘checks and balance’ in Denver city and county government, the City Charter requires the auditor to sign all contracts to ensure that no liability is incurred, no money is disbursed or no city property is disposed of in a manner contrary to law.

“There is nothing in the I-70 [intergovernmental agreement] that is contrary to law. Therefore no legal basis exists on which I could withhold my signature.”

Strictly speaking, O’Brien may be right, but the issue with the I-70 agreement was never its legal validity. What Gallagher excelled at was using the limited powers of his office to highlight problems with projects, like scolding the Denver Regional Council of Governments for awarding it $50 million. Gallagher also came out with a hard-hitting critique of Mayor Hancock for not backing up his talk about making the city better for walking and biking.

Will O’Brien use his bully pulpit to chastise agencies for poor transportation policies? His meek response to the I-70 agreement isn’t promising.

It’s still early on in O’Brien’s tenure as auditor, and there’s plenty of time for him to make a mark. But Gallagher’s penchant for picking smart fights and causing a stir will be missed.

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