Boulder staff restricts citizen input — Gail Promboin

POSTED:   02/17/2015 05:26:10 PM MST

The Camera’s report of a recent Code for America gathering about citizen involvement (” Boulder seeks tools for outreach,” Feb. 12) included several assertions that Boulder’s efforts to obtain and use citizen input are numerous, effective, and exemplary. They are indeed numerous, but my own efforts to be an involved citizen suggest they are anything but effective, in that they fail to engage the vast majority of Boulder citizens and they place an excessive burden on citizens who might be inclined to participate.

To speak directly to power (council, planning board, or other boards), citizens must give up having dinner with their families because our elected and appointed leaders only meet then. To speak at one of their meetings requires arriving early for sign-up and waiting one’s turn to speak for three minutes at most. If one wants to weigh in on a public hearing agenda item, it may require a very long night. People who juggle work and family can’t do that. People who don’t go out at night can’t do that. People who can’t take the bus or bicycle must pay to park — if they can find a space. One can always write to council or board members, but who knows if they actually read it?

All other citizen engagement opportunities are structured, run, interpreted, and reported by staff. They, too, require sacrificing dinner with family. “Open houses” on particular issues (I’ve attended many) are typically limited to listening to staff, responding to staff-defined questions, and being led to predetermined conclusions. Our elected and appointed leaders only know what staff tells them about citizen views. When was the last time Council was told that the citizens who participated did not support the staff’s positions?

More sustained “working groups,” such as those under way for the Housing Boulder process, are composed mainly of carefully selected advocates and individuals with vested interests, with very few ordinary citizens. Staff control of the structure, process, options, and outcomes is even stronger than for open houses. If working group members want to pursue a different direction than that defined by staff (gasp!), the staff goes ahead and imposes a predetermined structure and process.

The city uses several web-based methods to gather citizen input, but only on staff-defined topics, in response to staff-defined (shallow) questions, and with a limited time window in which to comment. They may be easy to use for the generation that grew up digital, but they are far from user-friendly for the adult dinosaurs that make up Boulder’s fastest-growing demographic group.

None of these methods provides any insight into what Boulder’s silent majority thinks, believes, or wants. Obtaining authentic citizen input isn’t easy, to be sure. City leaders would have to find citizens where they are (neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, shopping centers, recreation centers, coffee shops, etc.), when they are there (not just weeknight dinner time), ask them open-ended questions about what they want the future of Boulder to be like, and report those findings accurately and without bias. Public opinion polls and mail surveys also can be helpful in reaching a more representative sample of Boulder citizens.

It’s not easy or cheap to broaden citizen participation in local government. Reaching beyond those motivated enough (by passion, self-interest, or other powerful drivers) to sacrifice family and personal time would result in a more accurate picture of citizens’ values, beliefs, and priorities. They may not be congruent with what our leaders and city staff want to hear. But it would be worth it, and only then could Boulder boast of its exemplary citizen participation.

Gail Promboin lives in Boulder.

… maintaining Boulder's quality of life