Sunday, February 28, 2010

Prisoners of Lies

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From the March Naysayer by Phil Goodstein

In 2005, voters swallowed the city hall line when they authorized a new "justice center," a massive jail and courthouse adjacent to the City and County Building. They were told it would open by 2009, featuring a signature building designed by a hotshot architect. The man hired to create the primary structure, Steven Hall, bailed out of the effort in October 2006, claiming that the city had vastly and cynically underestimated the costs of the project to dupe voters into authorizing it. The administration replied that it was on the verge of firing Hall for incompetence. Amidst this, James Mejia, an all-embracing city hall hack, left his post as coordinator of the effort to run the city preschool initiative.

From the beginning, the city's numbers about the Justice Center have fluctuated wildly. At the time of Hall's departure, newspapers reported the effort was $34 million over budget. A year later, the projected price was $50 million more than Mayor John Hickenlooper had promised taxpayers. The cost, initially slated at about $213 million was $286.3 million by November 2008.

Amidst this, the city has announced that the effort is finally about to open "on budget and on time." It cites a cost of the jail of $159 million and the courthouse of $136 million-a sum of $295 million. Far from exposing city hall's fabrications, the Denver Post proudly reported them as exemplars of the efficiency of its beloved mayor.

Everything about the original cost estimates and naming of buildings at the new jail/courthouse is thoroughly nebulous. As part of its endless bait-and-switch tactics, city hall promised that the bond issue included a redesign and reconstruction of much of the existing county jail. Now, it is eager to renege on that promise.

The new jail will create a surplus of cells. City leaders have responded by questioning if they should spend $25 million of the bond money at the county jail as promised. Proponents see an expanded lockup as a great revenue generator: the city could rent space in the Bastille, while awaiting it to fill with Denver prisoners. Others, led by city councilman Doug Linkhart want to divert the funds to other municipal projects.

Linkhart's suggestion is a blatant insult to voters. In the same way it is thoroughly dishonest and reprehensible for a merchant to offer one thing in an advertisement and deliver something quite different, public officials are responsible for carrying out their promises. If the city does not need an addition to the county jail, the only honorable action is not to spend the money.

To his credit, Linkhart has conceded that a public authorization is necessary for diverting the jail fund. Such a position is far beyond the city's empty daily, the Denver Post. Most deservedly, its parent, MediaNews, recently filed for Chapter II bankruptcy reorganization.

When MediaNews kingpin Dean Singleton took charge of the Post in 1987, the paper was on the verge of collapse. By putting a little muscle into the sheet, he was eventually able to kill the Rocky Mountain News. All the while, he was insistent that the primary role of the press is that of a cheerleader for and adviser to the status quo--he publicly criticized the newspaper industry for focusing too much on investigative reporting.

Despite the insubstantial essence of the Post and its other papers, MediaNews was extremely profitable into the early 21 st century. Singleton used the company's substantial earnings to continually expand, coming to be a major national media magnate. Even as dailies showed themselves completely unable to grasp the impact of the Internet, encouraging it while scorning their paid subscribers, MediaNews spent ridiculously high prices to acquire parts of the collapsed Knight-Ridder chain. Not only did Singleton borrow heavily to finance the purchases, but the Post owner tried to pay for them by cutting his papers' staffs and seeking to bust their unions. By 2009, the quality of the Post was in total collapse while MediaNews was $930 million in debt with its bills coming due.

The result has been the bankruptcy of MediaNews. In the process, Singleton has managed to protect himself, keeping a controlling share of the company. Creditors are expected to get but 17 cents on the dollar. Favored lenders led by the Bank of America will get equity in the reorganized media chain.

The Post deal is typical of corporate America. While Congress, with the support of the Democrats, readily attacked poor individuals seeking bankruptcy protection under George W. Bush, the federal bankruptcy system more or less exists to preserve and enhance the likes of Singleton. Naturally, amidst the lies about the new jail (it is difficult to say whether the Post readily reported Hickenlooper's lies about the lockup through sheer incompetence or through a slanting of its coverage), no mention is made that the city should focus on imprisoning the swindlers and scoundrels of 17th Street. Such commonsense, or even an honest portrayal of the community, will never be found in Singleton's Post, a literally bankrupt rag.

(The Naysayer is a print-only monthly penned by Denver historian Phil Goodstein, who graciously gives us permission to publish from it here. The Naysayers next meet on Saturday, March 6, Enzo's Pizza, 3424 Colfax (between Cook and Madison) 5:30 PM)


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