Hancock Hit The Books Before He Vetoed The Bill That Would’ve Ended Denver’s Pit Bull Ban

February 24, 2020
Mayor Michael Hancock speaks to Ryan Warner and Colorado Matters in his office. Feb. 21, 2020.Mayor Michael Hancock speaks to Ryan Warner and Colorado Matters in his office. Feb. 21, 2020.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Mayor Michael Hancock speaks to Ryan Warner and Colorado Matters in his office. Feb. 21, 2020.

Before Denver Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed a bill on Feb. 14 that would have effectively ended the city's pit bull ban, he says he did the research.

"We read a voluminous amount of data, a lot of it provided by the same experts (that testified in city council). Also got information from all over the nation. I had conversations with the emergency room physicians as well as pediatricians, talk to older adults. Some in favor, some non-favor," Hancock said.

Hancock said he had both positive and negative personal experiences with pit bulls as a child. He grew up with a pit bull named Sue Ellen, who he described as a "sweet, very kind, loving family dog." But the mayor says he was also attacked by a neighbor's pit bull when he was 10 or 11, an incident that didn't leave lasting physical damage but did result in an "emotional (scar)."

"I go back to the number of (severe attacks) and fatalities caused by pit bulls and a great deal of concern," he said. "I am convinced, particularly when I talk to emergency room physicians and pediatricians, that these dogs when they engage, it could be very severe."

Breed-specific legislation and pit bull policies are controversial nationwide, and that was true in Denver too. City Council approved the bill only after many lengthy and contentious hearings.

The bill would've opened up registration to owners of the three types of pit bull breeds defined under Denver law while following certain stricter requirements, such as mandatory spaying or neutering.

While Hancock didn't rule out the possibility of the city's pit bull ban coming to an end during his third and final term as Denver mayor, he didn't imagine a specific path forward.

"You know what, I think we have a long time over the next three and a half years to continue to talk about this issue, continue to look at it in a very circumspective way, and to really learn as much as we possibly can learn. But also to improve our processes," Hancock said. "So is there a possibility? There's always a possibility, but at the end of the day, we've got some things that we have to do as a city."

One of those "things that we have to do" is making sure more owners of all breeds of dogs register their pet, which is city law, Hancock said. Right now, the mayor said only one in five pet owners in Denver actually license their dog.

"One of the things that we got to improve our enforcement and promotion of (licensing), because it is important," Hancock said.

The number of off-leash dog complaints made in the city, and how to handle them, was another priority for the mayor.

"We continuously, all over the city of Denver, complaints and concerns about off-leash dogs. We need to fix that," he said.

In an interview with Colorado Matters, Hancock also talked about his newly created climate action office, RTD's ongoing issues, affordable housing and efforts to push back against a rise in youth gun violence.


Interview Highlights

On why a focus of the climate office will be increasing multimodal transportation:

"We need to reduce the number of single-occupied vehicles in the city of Denver. We know the number one cause of carbon emissions are automobiles, and when we have a 73 percent single occupied vehicle rate in the city of Denver. At the rate in which we're growing, it's not sustainable.

So the reality is we've got to get better, which means we had become more a multimodal a system. We're going to be squeezing our road because part of the road's going to be used for bikes and part of the road's going to be used to help our pedestrians feel safer."

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Mayor Michael Hancock speaks to Ryan Warner and Colorado Matters in his office. Feb. 21, 2020.

On what the city is doing right now to create more affordable housing in Denver, and what holistic programs also need to happen:

"It's a multi-pronged approach. I've said this from day one. Not only do we have to look at improving or increasing stock or inventory around affordable housing — which we are doing, we've committed over $300 million over the next five to six years. We've already issued bonds are within partnership with Denver housing authority at $108 million to expedite and to surge the market with building of affordable property.

We hope to build on an excess of 6,000 o5 6,300 units with our investment — hopefully more — over the next five to six years. Hopefully more in partnership with developers. So what we're doing is we're securing land, we're partnering with developers and organizations that are building affordable housing. We're trying to surge in the market as fast as we possibly can. But it's also got to include waste stagnation, or addressing wage stagnation. It's one reason why I moved to increase minimum wage in Denver."

On how social media is contributing to a spike in youth gun violence in Denver:

"What really surprised me when I sat down with law enforcement and some in our legal community, is that what they're noticing in not all, but in a lot of these interactions, our young people began through social media. There's evidence as you look back on their social media posts that a lot of beef start there. They're going back and forth, and then ultimately, there's an interaction in person. Unfortunately sometimes it's a deadly interaction.

So what we are seeing is that they're not necessarily gang-related, but that young people are carrying weapons, many of them taken from unsecured situations, and are using them to settle beefs that started with just words across social media."

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.


Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: Mayor, thanks for being with us again.

Michael Hancock: Glad to be with you.

RW: You are in office through 2023. Is there any scenario in which pit bulls become legal in Denver in that time? Any compromise?

MH: You know what, I think we have a long time over the next three and a half years to continue to talk about this issue, continue to look at it in a very, I think, circumspective way and to really learn as much as we possibly can learn. But also to improve our processes. So is there a possibility? There's always a possibility, but at the end of the day, we've got some things that we have to do as a city.

RW: Improve our processes.

MH: Yes.

RW: Do you think this wasn't handled the right way?

MH: No, no. I really applaud Councilman Herndon. When I talked to him, I did —

RW: It's Christopher Herndon.

MH: Yeah, Councilman Chris Herndon. He did it right. He was very transparent, open. I knew for a while he was coming with it. I also share with him the complexities I had with legalizing or bringing back the breed of pit bulls in Denver having been a native of Denver and watched how this became a law. What I'm talking about there is that today we have a licensing process in Denver. We're only one in five pet owners actually license their dog.

RW: Yeah, let's be clear here. Denver actually requires all dog owners, no matter the breed, to license their dogs.

MH: Right.

RW: I have a feeling Mayor that if you asked 10 Denverites —

MH: Right.

RW: — I don't know that eight of them would know that.

MH: Exactly the point I'm making. One of the things that we got to improve our enforcement and promotion of that because it is important. So we were going to layer the permitting process on top of a licensing process that's not working, as well as the number of off-leash dogs that we have in the city of Denver. We continuously, all over the city of Denver, complaints and concerns about off-leash dogs. We need to fix that.

Then it's the … Not the responsible owners that we … And by the way, I think it's important to know that just because you don't license your dog, you're not responsible. That's not the point we're trying to make here.

But we do have people who are not responsible dog owners and it's important that I want you to know that most of my review after looking at all the information data, it was those folks who most concerned me along with the impact of bites by pit bulls oftentimes leading to severe injuries or fatalities.

RW: Of course, other dogs bite.

MH: All dogs bite, have potential to bite.

RW: Let me play this from Councilman Herndon who sponsored the legislation. This is from earlier this month and he says he brought a slew of experts to council to testify.

Tape of Christopher Herndon: And they're all standing in front of you saying these dogs are not more dangerous than any other breed. What you've never heard me say is a pit bull is not going to bite. And I've never said that. All dogs bite. And my heart goes out to any family member who has had an incident with a dog bite. I'm a father. I have a five year old and when I heard people about young children it rips at my heart

And to think that I would bring something forward that would make our communities less safe is absolutely not true. I would never do that. Our communities are not safe with this breed specific legislation.

RW: He simply doubts the entire premise of the pit bull ban.

MH: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The reality is that we've looked at a lot of data as well. We read a voluminous amount of data. A lot of it provided by the same experts. Also got information from all over the nation. I had conversations with the emergency room physicians as well as pediatricians, talk to older adults. Some in favor, some non-favor. Got to tell you, this is a very polarizing issue. People are almost split down the middle on this issue.

The reality is is that, when pit bulls engage, with all dogs biting and no one said that all dogs don't bite. We're saying that when dogs bite, what we learn is that pit bulls have a greater level severity than most other dogs.

The reality is that last year 69 percent of all fatalities caused by dog attacks were caused by pit bulls. The year before between 2015, excuse me, 2012 and 2017 66 percent of all fatalities caused by dog bites were caused by pit bulls. Those are numbers that I could not dismiss. When they engage, they engage with greater severity and oftentimes resulted in fatality.

RW: Aren't there other breeds that are on the top of that list too?

MH: You got some out there.

RW: Why not ban them?

MH: But there's a wide gap between the next dog in terms of the fatalities that result from their bites.

RW: It sounded to me like you thought people's, some people's poor behavior, a failure to license their dogs, or a failure to keep their dogs on a leash in a way that responsible dog owners are having to pay for their poor behavior. Why should that be? Why should the law abiding people who want to have a pit bull in their home, apparently Colorado's governor is among them.

MH: No he does not. He had a friend's dog.

RW: Well I understand. But it sounds like he wouldn't be afraid to bring one into his home with a kind of infamous tweet and photo now. But why punish the folks following the law because of bad actors?

RW: The reality is, again, I go back to the number of severity and fatalities caused by pit bulls and a great deal of concern. I am convinced, particularly when I talk to emergency room physicians and pediatricians, that these dogs when they engage, it could be very severe.

RW: You also mentioned your own upbringing in Denver as having informed this.

MH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

RW: What did you mean?

MH: At one point in my life there was a pit bull in our family. Her name was Sue Ellen. As most people describe their dogs or their pits, the experience that they had from around the country, sweet, very kind, loving family dog. So no problems with Sue Ellen.

When I was growing up around the age of 10 or 11 I had an unfortunate incident with a neighbor's dog, a pit bull. I just remember the dog biting me on the ankle and getting a hold of my foot and really literally taking three adult man to get that dog off my foot.

RW: Is there a scar?

MH: No.

RW: Okay.

MH: Only an emotional one.

RW: In a tweet you said your veto, you said you've gotten thousands of comments from the public about the legislation, which would have required pit bulls be licensed and registered in the city. I wonder what the breakdown of the letters was pro/con. In any issue, how much attention do you pay to whether the people writing are in Denver or not?

MH: You know, on this issue you do see where a lot of people are writing from. I did notice that an awful lot of the comments came from people outside of Colorado.

RW: Okay. Are they influential in your thinking?

MH: I mean, their points are important to hear and I read all of them. I did not read them, look and see who's from Colorado taking points and are trying to put them in one column Colorado, outside of Colorado. That didn't happen. Nor did I say for or against. There were a lot for, there were a lot against. What I'm listening for are really the tonation or the type of arguments that they're making.

RW: Were those letters persuasive?

MH: They were very important for me to read them. What was the fear of people — hearing someone talk about their five year old son was killed by a pit bull, as well as people saying I have a pit bull in my family, I love my pit bulls. We grew up with pit bulls. That stuff is important for me to hear. I mean I can relate to them.

RW: You've appointed the leader of your new office of climate action sustainability and resiliency. She's a sustainability consultant from Chicago, Grace Rank. Just after that announcement I want to note that the advocacy group, Walked Denver, put out an alert.

RW: "If Denver's going to achieve its climate goals the most impactful thing we can do in the realm of transportation is to reduce the amount of driving we do in this city." Do you agree fundamentally with the premise that fewer people should be in cars in Denver?

MH: Fewer people? I don't know. Let me just look at it differently.

RW: Sure.

MH: We need to reduce the number of single occupied vehicles in the city of Denver. We know the number one cause of carbon emissions are automobiles, and when we have a 73 percent single occupied vehicle rate in the city of Denver, at the rate in which we're growing, it's not sustainable.

They're driving alone in their cars, and you've got to recognize this city grows by 23 percent on average per day. These are people driving into the city of Denver to work. The reality is is that that's not sustainable either if they're in single occupied vehicles.

So the reality is we've got to get better, which means we had become more a multimodal a system. We're going to be squeezing our road because part of the road's going to be used for bikes and part of the road's going to be used to help our pedestrians feel safer.

RW: Okay, so is it that you get more people into those vehicles or you get more people out of vehicles all together into some other form of transit?

MH: Hopefully all of it's part of helping us be healthier and more sustainable.

RW: I feel like they've been trying to get the carpool thing off the ground since I was a kid.

MH: Yep, I think we all do. Right?

RW: You know?

MH: Right, right. The reality is more people in cars theoretically and logically you'd think there'd be less cars on the road. So if that's part of what we do, then that's good. But we also need to make sure we're growing transit, we're growing bicycle lanes and we're also making it safer for folks who are walking.

RW: How do you do that, especially with transit, as RTD shrinks service?

MH: RTD issue is very concerning. I don't bite my tongue on that. It's something that could set our plans to build our mode share back by years and that is not okay. So as a city we're going to work to lean in and try to do what we can to help RTD to think through how they can be more efficient and more sustainable in the going, coming years.

Leadership support in that, design's important, making sure that it's a good partnership with the cities. So I don't bite my tongue. That is a concern for us. But at the same time we've got to remain aggressive with regards to our efforts to build on our mode share.

RW: Well in the last election Denver voters chose to create a department of transportation and infrastructure to give walking, biking transit a higher profile. Within that is the possibility that the city mounts its own transit service.

MH: Right.

RW: It sounded to me from your last answer like you first want to work with RTD, see what support you can be. But do you think that Denver should mount its own transit service? Any update on that?

MH: No, the overall vision was not to mount our own transit service, but if we were, it was to be a compliment to the current service that's in place. First, last mile, the gas that exist maybe from Cherry Creek to downtown, from Cherry Creek to Denver and national airport. How do we do those things so that people aren't jumping in single occupied vehicles or even calling T&Cs to pick them up or Uber ride shares and lifts or so forth.

How do we do that in a way that's sufficient and efficient and environmentally sound for our community? Those are kind of transit plans or thoughts we had. But if we have to look at a more thorough, bigger strategy, we will do that. But that's why we enabled DOTI to be able to do that.

RW: Just introduce DOTI to the world.

MH: The Department of Transportation Infrastructure, DOTI.

RW: I see. So no immediate update on that last mile thing.

MH: No.

RW: What does it mean for the city to support RTD? What does that mean?

MH: You know what, it is really a thoughtful conversation about their challenges, their shortcomings or challenges —

RW: Labor.

MH: — labor. How can we help fill that void? How can we be a partner with you, you be a better partner with us.

RW: What's the answer?

MH: Depending on what our needs are. We don't know that yet. We're engaging RTD now. We want to know what can we possibly do to help you with your labor challenges. They may have some ideas. Our Department of Transportation Infrastructure as well as Economic Development and workforce teams might have some ideas. So I think marrying those kind of options are helpful.

I'm going to be meeting with the chair of the RTD board very shortly and I know her for a long time. She's a wonderful, wonderful person, has done a lot of work in this field and we want to be helpful. You know, we're not here to pile on RTD. We need them to be a solid partner.

RW: You mentioned walking, right? Bus is certainly an option, a car full of people is an option, so is walking.

MH: Right.

RW: When I asked for people's questions on Twitter, I noted several of them who just thought the quality of the sidewalks or their mere existence in some parts of the city was not spectacular.

MH: Right.

RW: Do you hear this mayor?

MH: Yeah, absolutely. That's why we —

RW: How do you —

MH: — have a strategy around improving our sidewalks and placing sidewalks where we have gaps in the city of Denver. So we've increased our funding in sidewalks on sidewalk repairs and sidewalk replacement. As you know, it's the adjacent properties owner's responsibility so we have a partnership, our plan to partner with the homeowners and property owners if they need help in terms of borrowing from a loan fund that we set up to help replace and repair sidewalks. So our goal is to improve that.

We also had it built into our bond program and so we had I think an excessive $40 million going into sidewalks, 14 million, excuse me, going to sidewalks. So the reality is that we have strategies. We are about a billion dollar plus on a challenge with regards to sidewalks so it's not —

RW: That's the need?

MH: — that's the need and the last estimate that I heard. It's not something that is new. Concrete and sidewalks are very expensive interestingly enough. But we have some strategies to try to bite into that. It won't be something done overnight, but our people know those who are leaning in know that we're working hard to try to address it.

RW: Sticking with climate, there's been talk of a climate tax in Denver. City council, of course you know, was pursuing one but it was put on hold as part of a compromise with your office. Meanwhile, a citizen initiative is moving forward. Do you support the concept broadly writ large of taxing residents, businesses for excessive or polluting energy use?

MH: I think what has to happen and the greatest threat to any of the work around climate change, which I think is one of the greatest threats to mankind, is that we must do this in a way that is equitable. We can't just throw out taxes and fees without understanding what its impact is on people. Right?

RW: I know you have concerns about small business.

MH: Small businesses, older adults on fixed income, they're already being burdened with the cost of living increase in Denver. So we must be thoughtful and the last thing we need is for our sustainability or climate change efforts to be seen as a middle-class, or excuse me, upper-middle-class, or yuppie kind of movement.

Because you're going to leave a lot of people out who won't participate and we need everybody to be brought along. So we have to do this in an inclusive and open way, and that's the thing that I shared with city council. You do this and you put a lot of small businesses behind the eight ball on this, or you hurt people who are trying to just make it in today's society, you will forever turn them off from their role in climate change.

RW: But as some of these have been built, it's to penalize people who waste energy or use an excessive amount.

MH: Absolutely.

RW: How else do you drive behavior change?

MH: But I think one of the things you have to do is make sure engaging people in conversation because there's a lot of things people can do to one, become aware of the fact that you can do things to conserve your energy and do things to not be as detrimental to the environment as some of us are.

So we got to raise the level of awareness and we've got to make sure people are engaged and invited to be included in this process. You do this from a top down or from a position where you are not at all worried about taxation. When it becomes regressive, you start losing folks.

RW: If Twitter is any indication our audience is eager to hear from you on affordable housing.

MH: Yeah.

RW: It's a perennial issue for Denver and many other cities in Colorado. How will you move the needle in your final term? And let me point out, more than half of Denverites are rent burdens.

MH: Yep.

RW: They spend more than a third of their income on housing. How do you make a dent? How do you move the needle?

MH: It's a multi-pronged approach, Ryan. And I've said this from day one. Not only do we have to look at improving or increasing stock or inventory around affordable housing, which we are doing, we've committed over $300 million over the next five to six years. We've already issued bonds are within partnership with Denver housing authority at $108 million to expedite and to surge the market with building of affordable property.

RW: How many units is that just for context?

MH: We hope to build on an excess of 6,000, 6,300 units with our investment.

RW: In what span of time?

MH: Hopefully more. Over the next five to six years. Hopefully more in partnership with developers. So what we're doing is we're securing land, we're partnering with developers and organizations that are building affordable housing. We're trying to surge in the market as fast as we possibly can. But it's also got to include waste stagnation or addressing wage stagnation, one reason why I moved to increase minimum wage in Denver.

We've got a lot of resources being made in this community or in this city, in this economy, but yet people are still not making the wages that they deserve to be making. Wage stagnation has dogged this nation for the last four decades. Not only does the city of Denver but the state of Colorado and United States federal government have to get serious by helping people with regards to wages.

RW: It's interesting, there's a restaurant in my neighborhood, I'm not going to name it, but they had a sign on the door. They said "We've stopped dinner service cause Denver raised the minimum wage". So you have pushback as well from businesses who are saying you're squeezing us.

MH: Uh-huh (affirmative).

RW: Talk about the balance there of wage growth and supporting the same folks and businesses you were just talking about earlier with potential climate tax.

MH: There's a lot that we need to do to help our small businesses. I'm also worried about their lease costs. We are seeing that exponentially go up because of the cost of the evaluation of buildings, commercial buildings have also increased and so we're having ongoing conversations with the governor, the state legislature to see what we can do to address this issue of rising costs for our small businesses with regards to their leases.

Wage stagnation is something that we knew would at some point challenge some companies. But the reality is that does that mean we don't do it? We've got to address wages. I don't know, outside of climate change, if there's any other issue that threatens really the civility, the stabilization of our families and our way of life in this nation than the stagnation of wages.

That's backed up with a lot of data. When you have 50 percent of your people overburden with rents, the reality is not just the cost of housing, that's a big part of it. it's the fact that people's wages are not going up commensurate with the cost of living in our city.

RW: You mentioned the price of leases. What would it look like for the state or the city to address that? I mean, it is a market.

MH: Well, Gallagher —

RW: It's an amendment in the state constitution.

MH: What landowners or property owners are doing is passing the cost of their valuations and tax increase, property tax increases, onto their leasers. Leasees, excuse me. So the reality is that we have to address the challenges around Gallagher.

Now that's politically difficult, but state legislature has to think outside the box about how we begin to address the issue of Gallagher, which provides a disproportionate burden on the commercial property owners that are residential.

RW: I'll just say that Gallagher is part of like the fiscal thicket.

MH: That's right.

RW: It's referred to as the Gordian nod-

MH: Absolutely.

RW: — along with Tabor, along with Amendment 23.

RW: All of these things in the state constitution that are governing budgeting.

MH: Absolutely. So the problem is is that we are seeing if you own property it's good to see your evaluations go up. We all want that, right? But our property taxes go up commensurate with the evaluation. And when that happens in a commercial and you have leasees, they're passing that on, that cost, to the leasee. That's what we're really seeing is the greatest threat to our small businesses.

RW: So you're lobbying for changes to Gallagher-

MH: Absolutely.

RW: … which would require … Would that require … constitutional?

MH: Yep. It's something that I've talked about, boy, since I've been mayor and actually maybe since I was on council, but certainly more aware of it now. There was a time when the former, late mayor of Aurora, Steve Hogan, and I were on stage and we were talking at a DBJ, Denver Business Journal, breakfast and we had a conversation.

Someone brought up the issue, the not you talked about. And we both look at each other without talking and just simply said, it's time for us to address Gallagher and Tabor as a state.

This is a fiscal, potentially a fiscal crisis for the state. If we don't find a way to address it we're certainly going to lose businesses. We're certainly losing small businesses as a result of it.

RW: And yet voters statewide have been unwilling to make the kinds of changes that-

MH: Absolutely.

RW: — Democratic politicians have been asking for.

MH: Right.

RW: Together with Denver Public Schools you're putting $200,000 towards micro grants to fight youth violence. I guess I want to define that term youth violence. What does that mean to you?

MH: It's really youth gun violence is what we are working to address and a great deal of concern. As you know, metro wide that we've had an increase in the amount of a youth gun violence in our city.

RW: Is that gang violence mayor?

MH: It's not necessarily gang violence. No, and matter of fact, I think our law enforcement will tell you they don't see it as gang related violence. These are beefs that typically start with young people on social media and being played out and we're also seeing younger people, young people, younger youth, I should say being engaged.

Typically it was your 12 to 24 with more of the violence occurring with the older kids. Now you're seeing younger kids who are carrying weapons and taking them into middle schools in some aspects or instances in elementary schools. So we're working with Denver Public Schools to begin to bridge some of those challenges, particularly with before, after and summer programming.

RW: Okay, so that's what the programs would look like.

MH: Right.

RW: That's what you're helping fund.

MH: Right. We want to partner with community based organizations to do that.

RW: That already exists.

MH: Already exists, in the game.

RW: So the idea is that when they're not in school, these young people-

MH: Right.

RW: — there is something for them to do.

MH: Right.

RW: You talked about these beefs starting online and then resulting in violence. That does feel different than what we have thought of as a typical gang. Can you just say a few more words about that?

MH: Yeah, what really surprised me when I sat down with law enforcement and some in our legal community that what they're noticing, not all, but a lot of these interactions what our young people began through social media. There's evidence that as you look back on their social media posts that a lot of beef start there. They're going back and forth and then ultimately there's an interaction in person. Unfortunately sometimes it's a deadly interaction.

So what we are seeing is that they're not necessarily gang related but that young people are carrying weapons, many of them taken from unsecured situations, and are using them to settle beefs that started with just words across social media.

RW: Summer programs and afterschool programs is the way to address that?

MH: Well one way to help address it is we're going to take a multi-pronged approach. One is to make sure that — you might recall we partnered with a couple organizations to hand out 1,200 gun locks so that people who carry their guns in their cars or at home, that they secure them. That's first and foremost.

MH: The next step that we took was to partner with DPS here with this situation where we're working with community based organizations to keep young people safe and involved with programs after school and during summer hours.

MH: Then the third step we're going to continue to work on is employment opportunities. Education around when you carry a gun, the dangers and the trouble, the consequences that you can find for yourself. So it's going to be a multi-pronged approach. What we did with DPS is just one step in a multi-step effort.

RW: Gun education, that's not going to be the least bit controversial.

MH: Right.

RW: How do you develop that curriculum?

MH: I'm not going to develop it. I'm sure that people out there already have it, but the reality is that young people … We got a lot around young people and their relationship with guns and understanding what happens when you use a gun on someone and it's time to begin to break down those barriers and have real candid conversations with young people about guns.

RW: Mayor, thanks for your time.

MH: Always good to see you.

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