Denver's independent auditor found the city's social equity office needs better organization and support in a report issued Thursday, an assessment that quickly drew a rebuke from Mayor Michael Hancock's office as being "more detrimental than supportive."

The report, led by Denver Auditor Timothy M. O'Brien, faulted the Mayor's Office of Social Equity and Innovation for lacking strategic goals and the authority needed to conduct its work within other city departments.

Auditors also said the office, which Hancock established via an executive order in June 2020, needed more support from the mayor's office to ensure it's capable of achieving its goals of improving social equity and minimizing racism in city government.

"This is a very new office with a high amount of recent turnover in leadership,” O'Brien said in a statement. “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.”

Specifically, auditors noted that the office did not have a strategic plan with benchmarks that can be tracked and assessed. The office should also conduct a needs-assessment, they said, to determine what issues need to be addressed. They noted the consistent turnover in leadership, which has caused specific goals to shift, and they said the executive order that founded the office didn't give it enough authority for staff to have an impact within the broader city government. O'Brien's team also faulted communication between the office and other agencies, and it recommended the executive order be reworked.

The office lacked documented program design, according to the report, and staff hold "undefined roles and responsibilities"; instead, staff told the auditors, they rely on the vision and experience of longer-serving peers, as well as their own "emotional intelligence," to guide their day-to-day efforts. The office has had three leaders in the two years since it was formally created.

In all, the auditors recommended the equity office make 16 changes. In its response, the office agreed to all 16 recommendations and said they would all be implemented by Nov. 23 at the latest.

Despite the agreement between the office and auditors, Hancock was sharply critical of the audit in a letter presented to the auditing committee Thursday. He said the analysis was hastily conducted and premature, given that the city created the equity office only two years ago. The mayor accused auditors of omitting equity work the city is already undertaking, and he said auditors did a "disservice" by not noting other efforts conducted before 2020.

"What is galling, however, and why I believe this audit report is more detrimental than supportive to the cause of equity in our city, is while the audit report’s authors were closely examining the trees, they neglected to see the forest," he wrote. "The forest, in this case, was an unprecedented global pandemic that caused the shutdown of many city offices, the suspension of normal operations and a clarion call to every city employee to rethink their work to help save the city. One can read this audit report and come away with the impression that nothing of consequence was happening in Denver in 2020-2021." 

O'Brien, the city's auditor, said in a statement that the review was "nothing beyond the norm for any assessment we might do, and no city agency is above independent assessment."

"I am disappointed office leadership and even the mayor have so thoroughly misunderstood how audits work," he continued, "and how they have misrepresented the integrity of our research and findings.”

The equity office needs strong leadership and support from the mayor's office, O'Brien said, to get back on track. 

“Due to leadership turnover and a lack of clear direction," he said, "the office doesn’t have the resources it needs to support diversity, equity, and inclusion citywide.”

Health reporter

Seth Klamann is the health reporter for the Gazette, focused on COVID-19, public health and substance use. He's a Kansas City native and a University of Missouri alum, with stops in Wyoming, Omaha and Milwaukee before moving to Denver.