Wheat Ridge’s Al Gallo has deep roots in north Denver. As a long-time resident of that neighboring area, he was invested in civic affairs and projects in the neighborhood. He discovered that he enjoyed learning about the processes in place to bring local projects to fruition. He liked working with Denver city staff from departments that were involved in community planning.
Soon, Al considered himself a neighborhood activist, and he was enjoying the role he played as a liaison between residents and city staff. He was able to impact the final outcome of an initiative by facilitating discussions with residents about a proposed long-term project. He liked being in “the room where it happens” – as they say in “Hamilton” – when describing government decision-making.
The expression “sausage-making” is used sometimes when referring to how government works. Some residents believe that the process of city planning, like making sausage, is unsavory and somewhat unpleasant. To some, it seems that the inner workings of city agencies are kept from view and that most citizens would prefer not knowing how decisions are made. But for a self-described neighborhood activist like Gallo, the process is exciting, enlightening and empowering.
Gallo and his wife Joyce were long-time residents of the Berkeley neighborhood, one of the areas close to the Highlands. As north Denver experienced significant growth, they found that the things that they had enjoyed about their neighborhood in the past were changing dramatically. Older homes were scraped and replaced with huge duplexes, family-owned businesses disappeared, and soon they felt that their area was no longer a good fit for them. They started looking for a home in a new neighborhood.
Five years ago, they found their new home in a quiet area in Wheat Ridge. It was closer to their original Berkeley home than some other suburbs, and it was more like what they knew from early years in north Denver. Wheat Ridge had the small-town feel that they enjoyed.
Gallo continued to look for opportunities to be involved with his new city’s government, and in the summer of 2020 saw an invitation to apply for a program called Wheat Ridge 101. He submitted his application immediately and was soon a member of the cohort.
Localworks is a nonprofit organization in Wheat Ridge whose goal is to create programming that encourages community members to become engaged with city government and other volunteer opportunities. Wheat Ridge 101 is among the programs that Localworks co-sponsors with the City of Wheat Ridge. The program offers an overview of city government, and also includes sessions introducing participants to various city departments, and how projects are selected and funded. It offers a model for ways community members can best interact with the city staff when they have questions (or concerns) they want to voice.
Last year’s seven sessions were held via Zoom, due to pandemic constraints. This year’s format will be similar, although they hope to hold meetings in person. The information provided gives participants a strong foundation in the inner workings of Wheat Ridge government. Among the sessions are an overview of the City Manager’s office, City Council, the planning and zoning offices, and the parks department.
Gallo left the program with a great deal of knowledge about how the city operates, and also deep respect for the city staff he met. He observed how staff guided the city through times of unprecedented conditions, when no one knew what was coming next. He feels that Wheat Ridge city staff and elected officials made some very good decisions that will continue to guide the city as conditions change and, hopefully, return to normal.
As an alum of Wheat Ridge 101, Gallo says he enjoys the “room where it happens” aspects of city government and intends to continue to be a neighborhood activist. He volunteers with several city boards and activities sponsored by Localworks and uses his role effectively as an advocate for his community.
Gallo believes strongly that all citizens have an obligation to learn about their local government and to become involved with it on some level. He feels that becoming involved with events and projects in the city is a way of giving back. It’s also true that being a grassroots volunteer can give residents a different perspective and can even lead to more formal opportunities in city government. While Gallo is content as an engaged community member for now, he encourages those who are considering running for elected office to do that. At some point, he may run for office himself. The important thing in his mind is to find your niche and stay involved.
Wheat Ridge 101 is a great way to get started, and one of many ways to learn about the city and to become engaged with city government and volunteer activities. He appreciates Localworks and the work they do on behalf of the city, and that, “…as Wheat Ridge grows and moves into the future, this program is a great way for neighbors to meet neighbors. That is the cornerstone of community.” In other words, Wheat Ridge is its residents, and the more engaged the residents are, the more vibrant the city will become.