Aug 29, 2022 - News

Denver mayor's social equity office falls short, audit finds

Illustration of people of color with one being examined under a magnifying glass.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Staff turnover, unclear direction and a lack of dedicated resources have stalled Denver leaders' ability to make the city a more equitable place to live, a new report from the auditor's office reveals.

Why it matters: Denver's equity office appears to be falling short on its promise to eliminate social injustices from city systems and practices — particularly those that affect historically marginalized communities.

Driving the news: City auditor Timothy O'Brien's latest report found the Mayor's Office of Social Equity and Innovation to be inefficient and ineffective, raising "significant concerns" about the future of social equity in Denver.

  • Two leaders have resigned in two years, resulting in six different mission statements and two "short" strategy documents lacking detail or measurable goals.
  • The report also found the office lacks any authority to enforce equity requirements, such as racial equity action plans, across city agencies — and several departments aren't complying.

Of note: O'Brien also said the mayor's equity office provided "disingenuous responses" to his office's inquiries, and offered "poor production of evidence" throughout the audit process.

Context: Mayor Michael Hancock established the equity office in June 2020 through an executive order after "several years of planning," according to the auditor's office.

  • The first chief equity officer stepped down a year later, and their interim replacement left three months later.
  • The latest leader, Aisha Rousseau, has been in the role since last October and told Fox31 the office's nine-person staff is missing a third of its team, but did not specify why.

The other side: In a letter, Hancock called the report "flawed" and pointed to "critical" equity work his administration has carried out over the last two years — including the city's response to COVID-19, which prioritized underserved communities and small businesses.

  • Hancock also questioned O'Brien's timing, arguing that the equity office is relatively new and was created during the early months of the pandemic, "when many city operations were hindered."

Between the lines: O'Brien is considering a mayoral run in 2023, Westword reports, and many of his team's audits have been critical of Hancock's administration — which could help fuel his campaign.

What to watch: Because the Mayor's Office of Social Equity and Innovation was established through an executive order, Denver's next leader come 2023 could potentially revoke the order and kill the program.

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