Debbie Brinkman is an organizer. Brinkman, 59, stepped down from city council in November, term limited to 12 years. After getting her start in politics at age 47, organizing neighbors against a …
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Debbie Brinkman is an organizer.
Brinkman, 59, stepped down from city council in November, term limited to 12 years.
After getting her start in politics at age 47, organizing neighbors against a proposed Walmart in south Littleton, Brinkman said she tried to bring the skills from her home-organization business to city government.
“Clean it up, get rid of clutter, make it functional,” Brinkman said of her approach to both messy houses and civic affairs.
In her time on council — including four years as mayor — Brinkman played a role in some of Littleton's most controversial decisions in recent memory, including the battle over urban renewal, the approval of the Vita Littleton apartment complex just east of downtown and the dissolution of Littleton's fire department and merger with South Metro Fire Rescue.
She capped her time in office with the approval of Littleton's first comprehensive plan since the 1980s and first-ever transportation master plan.
With city council in the rearview mirror, Brinkman said she's not sure where she'll go next, but she plans to be in the driver's seat.
“I'm not a good follower,” she said.
Learning to lead
Brinkman, a second-generation Denver-area native, grew up in Athmar Park, a working-class neighborhood in southwest Denver.
Her father worked at Gates Rubber, making fan belts on the graveyard shift. Her mother worked for an insurance agency, and together they made enough to put Brinkman and her two younger sisters through private school.
Later, as editor of the University of Northern Colorado's newspaper, Brinkman got her first taste of leadership — the good and the bad.
When the opinion page editor ran a letter that disparaged a black student group, Brinkman found herself hauled before a student ethics board.
“I told the board I never even read the letter before it went to print, but they didn't care,” Brinkman said. “I learned that when you're a leader, whether or not you did it, you did it.”
Not in her backyard
After college, Brinkman went to work in advertising, and rose up the ranks of a bigtime ad agency, but got burned out as the industry became more atomized and less creative. Always a neat freak, a friend suggested she go into home organizing.
“Mr. Rogers is my hero,” Brinkman said. “You'll never see a piece of clothing lying on my floor.”
Not long after Brinkman moved to Littleton in 2005, she began hearing rumblings of a plan to build a Walmart on land next to her home that today is home to Breckenridge Brewery, on South Santa Fe Drive.
“I felt comfortable in my home, and I thought I could spend the rest of my life there,” Brinkman said. “I didn't want lights and traffic and semis coming and going all night.”
She readily admits she was a NIMBY — for “not in my backyard.”
In 2006, when city council approved a rezone to allow the Walmart, Brinkman organized her neighbors to demand council put the issue to a popular vote. When council refused, she launched a petition campaign to get the issue on the ballot.
Brinkman and her coalition won, and the rezone lost in a landslide that fall. The momentum carried Brinkman into city council in 2007.
“I wanted to be in a position to never treat the public like we were treated by that city council,” Brinkman said.
Two sides to every story
Brinkman soon found herself weighing similar issues, when a developer hoped to build a housing complex just off Littleton Boulevard east of the railroad tracks, and was met with hefty citizen pushback.
“I had a conversation with the owner, and I was touched by how he felt his property rights had been taken from him,” Brinkman said. “There are two sides to these stories.”
The developer pulled out, but not long after, Zocalo Development targeted the same property with a larger building, which city staff approved as a use by right — meaning no citizen input.
Despite charges that the building violated city building and zoning codes, Brinkman said the building — previously called the Grove, now called Vita Littleton — was the result of badly-written zoning law.
“Maybe staff interpreted it in a way that favored development,” Brinkman said. “But two judges said the city's process was valid.”
Brinkman said the blame rests on citizens.
“It's not that staff committed violations, it's that voters elected councilmembers who kicked the can down the road” with regard to zoning changes, she said. “If you don't want patios counted as open space, get it out of the code.”
Brinkman said she didn't feel a conflict with her previous activism against Walmart.
“If I lived there, I would've fought the Grove, but not the same way,” she said. “Would I have sued the city or said the things they said? No.”
Regardless, Brinkman said, the Grove fight wouldn't go the same way today, after council under her direction passed a law mandating greater citizen input and appeals for similar buildings — and passed a comprehensive plan that would be less open to such a development.
'I've got a skillset'
Brinkman stood by other controversial decisions she had a hand in, including the dissolution of Littleton's fire department after the city's two large partner districts cut ties.
“Joining South Metro Fire was the best thing we ever did for our budget,” Brinkman said. “Plus, South Metro removes fire protection from the volatility of council and puts it in the hands of people who know what they're doing.”
Brinkman admits her stances have cost her the friendship of nearly everyone who joined her on the Walmart fight.
“They thought I was anti-development,” Brinkman said. “But I wasn't. I just didn't want to live next to a Walmart.”
Brinkman said she isn't sure what's next for her, but she hopes to stay in policymaking.
“I've got a skillset,” Brinkman said, “and I'm not afraid of being yelled at.”
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