The Englewood Environmental Foundation, the city-affiliated organization that owns the Civic Center, may soon be the subject of a district attorney’s investigation. File photo
BY PETER JONES
Although the District Attorney’s Office would not confirm it, Englewood city officials say investigators with the 18th Judicial District are at least casually looking into the legality of the nongovernmental, semiautonomous entity that owns the Englewood Civic Center.
In this case, it was the city itself that literally asked for an investigation.
“For me to come out and say, hey, I’ve looked at this and it’s clean would be the fox guarding the henhouse,” explained City Manager Eric Keck, who said he made the formal request to District Attorney George Brauchler.
At the center of an alleged controversy are two city-created entities, the Englewood Environmental Foundation, which owns the Civic Center and leases it to the city government, and the Englewood McClellan Reservoir Foundation, which manages utility properties located outside the city, among other functions.
Keck says the request for legal investigation was an effort to clear the air in response to City Councilwoman Laurett Barrentine, who has been outspokenly critical of the two entities whose boards, per the organization’s bylaws, are comprised of those holding certain positions within city management, though not Keck himself.
As part of the requested investigation, the city manager has supplied Brauchler’s office with financial reports, bylaws and articles of incorporation for the two groups. Although the creation of the organizations in the late 1990s preceded Keck’s tenure with the city, he says after looking over the documents with the city attorney, he feels confident that the City Council did its due diligence when creating both EEF and EMRF.
“While it’s unusual to have these things associated with cities, the fact of the matter is it was done in a legal fashion from everything we’ve analyzed. But if they find something, let’s get it corrected,” the city manager said.
Barrentine, who was re-elected to council last year on a government-transparency platform, says she has been frustrated by the unwillingness of EEF and EMFR to release information and says she recently opposed a council measure approving EMFR’s lease arrangement with Shea Properties because of the information shutdown.
“I had been told they were 501(c)3 and they were not obligated under the Open Records Act,” she said. “They’re us. We own them. I didn’t feel going forward we should be doing any more deals until we have financial information from them.”
According to Barrentine, other alleged improprieties with EEF have been brought to light in a lawsuit filed by an employee against a manager who sits on the EEF board. Keck would not confirm any such lawsuit due to personnel concerns.
Barrentine further alleges that EEF and EMRF, as nongovernmental organizations, were created to get around tax-limitation stipulations in the state Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“There’s no doubt,” she said. “In my opinion, [EEF] is a straw corporation set up to bypass state law and TABOR, which requires if you’re going to get into debt that you have a vehicle to pay it back, and TABOR requires a vote of the people in order to do that.”
Keck dismisses any suggestion that EEF’s landlord role is a legal violation.
“I see where people can jump to that conclusion, but I don’t believe there was any intent to try to subvert TABOR in any way, shape or form,” the city manager said.
While such semiautonomous, nongovernmental city affiliations are rare, Keck emphasizes that the City of Denver used similar structures to further the Lowry and Stapleton redevelopment projects, much as Englewood did to create the Civic Center on the site of the defunct Cinderella City shopping center.
The reason for such independent landlords, according to Keck and other Englewood officials, would be to avoid direct legal culpability to the city if something were to go awry in a commercial portion of a government-sponsored development.
Councilman Steve Yates says Barrentine has unjustly injected politics into city decisions that amount to nothing more than responsible governance.
“Her standard response is to use TABOR in anything she talks about,” Yates said. “This is not an uncommon practice for communities to limit their liability.”
As for the District Attorney’s Office, spokeswoman Michelle Yi would not comment on the city’s request for an official inquiry.
“At this point, I cannot comment on this matter and cannot confirm or deny the investigation,” she wrote in an email.
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