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Denver mayor Michael Hancock speaks during an unveiling of various public murals on June 16, 2021 at Five Points Plaza. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Two years after it was launched, the Mayor’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation still doesn’t have a cohesive strategy for its initiatives or for assessing progress toward increasing equity, and eliminating racial and social injustice citywide, the city auditor says.

The office also failed to disclose pertinent contract information before the audit process ended, and gave disingenuous responses to the auditor’s questions, Timothy O’Brien, Denver’s auditor, said in a report released last week. 

“This audit was nothing beyond the norm for any assessment we might do, and no city agency is above independent assessment,” O’Brien said. “I am disappointed office leadership and even the mayor have so thoroughly misunderstood how audits work and how they have misrepresented the integrity of our research and findings.”

The Mayor’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation was established by a mayoral executive order in June 2020 after several years of planning. The office oversees city agencies’ efforts to evaluate Denver’s systems, policies, and practices to increase equity and eliminate racial and social injustice.

But the office may be stymied by the executive order that established it, the auditor said.

The order is vague about its authority to enforce requirements for city agencies, the audit concluded. The office cannot force agencies to create racial equity action plans or compel them to participate in equity training. Staff reported being “stonewalled” when trying to work with some agencies on initiatives.

“As a result, several city agencies are not complying with the executive order,” according to the statement from the auditor. “They have not signed citywide equity commitments, created agency-level equity plans, or received training on social equity, race and social justice.”

The mayor’s social equity and innovation office now needs strong leadership and support from the mayor’s team to get back on track following high leadership turnover recently and a lack of clear direction, the statement says. 

The office has been through three chief equity officers since inception, according to the auditor’s report. Since the first officer’s departure, a lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities has led to tension and confusion among new and existing staff. Roles and responsibilities for staff are underdeveloped because previous leaders did not prioritize creating them and did not document their knowledge or vision before leaving, the report says. 

The office had 8.5 full time employees and a recommended budget of just over $1 million for 2022. 

The audit found six different mission statements and two short strategy documents, all of which lacked detail, clear mission statements and measurable objectives. Best practices show organizations should have one clear mission and more detailed strategic planning documents, policies and procedures that explain how the agency will achieve its mission, said Tayler Overschmidt, director of communications for the Denver auditor’s office.

The audit examined whether the mayor’s social equity office has effectively designed, implemented and evaluated its initiatives to fulfill its goal of increasing social equity and minimizing institutional, structural and systemic racism within city government. The audit found the office needs a detailed strategic plan, clearer authority when working with other city agencies, and more support from the mayor’s office, according to the statement.

Near the end of the audit, the auditor’s team discovered a $30,000 consulting contract between the city and a business owned and operated by the former interim chief equity officer. That former officer attended the initial meeting with leaders from the mayor’s social equity office near the beginning of the audit work and did not disclose the pending contract, Overschmidt said.

Despite several attempts by the auditor’s office to ensure it had all available documentation needed for the audit, the contract was not provided by the city, Overschmidt said. “Because this was not provided to us during the audit … we couldn’t audit the contract to determine whether the city got what it paid for and whether work performed under this contract might have satisfied some of our recommendations.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said he has welcomed audits in the past, even when they were critical of his office, because the reports can lead to improvements in city operations. However, in a statement released last week, he was critical of this one.

While there are some positive recommendations for future operations and overall structure for the city’s equity programs and practices, there was an incomplete description of the history and evolution of the city’s equity work in the report, glaring omissions of equity work in action, and other errors suggesting that this audit was undertaken in haste, and without a serious appreciation for the challenges of establishing a new office in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, the mayor said.

“Performing this audit at a later time, when the office is more established and its work more fully integrated into city departments, would have provided a much more beneficial review of the impacts of its operations and where processes could be improved,” the mayor said in a statement.

However, most of the report’s recommendations include criticism around a lack of strategic planning, metrics for success, clearer definitions of roles and responsibilities, staff empowerment, better internal communication, and more precise accounting procedures, said Hancock, who will finish his third and final term in office next year. 

These are recommendations the social equity office accepts, he said, and they are actions the office was planning to implement or is already in the process of implementing.

The social equity and innovation office works on advancing equity in all city departments and programs, with the goal of creating a more accessible, diverse and inclusive city government. 

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The recently launched social equity cannabis program was a part of the office’s work in collaboration with the city’s Department of Excise and Licenses. Less than a year in, applicants said the program already appeared to be failing.

Because the mayor’s social equity office was created by an executive order, there is a risk that a future major could end the program or revoke the order. The Denver auditor said he found no documentation that the mayor’s office or social equity staff have started efforts to send a proposed ordinance to make the office permanent, as they intended to do when the executive order was signed.

“I hope this audit will incentivize current leadership to begin building a stronger framework that will ensure this office’s important work has real impact and lasts in the city for a long time to come,” O’Brien said.

MORE: To read the full audit report, visit: https://denvergov.org/Government/Agencies-Departments-Offices/Agencies-Departments-Offices-Directory/Auditors-Office/Audit-Services/Audit-Reports/City-Equity-Program-and-Practices

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Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel...