Boulder council debates staff’s role in policy making

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

City Council had its mid-term retreat Friday night to set the agenda for 2019. Here are the highlights.

On staff feedback/actions to council:

Councilwoman Mirabai Nagle suggested that staff stop making policy recommendations to council and instead “focus on thorough analysis of the alternatives with detailed looks at contextual issues as well as costs, benefits and other factors.”

Policy making in Boulder can be divisive, she said, and council should “take the heat rather than staff. If anyone is going to be divisive, it’s going to be us.”

Council member Lisa Morzel agreed. Members Sam Weaver, Bob Yates, Suzanne Jones and Mary Young felt staff already provides plenty of options and analysis, but could tweak its process a bit more toward a pro-con approach. Councilman Aaron Brockett said making recommendations was part of the job.

“We rely on staff to use their knowledge and discretion,” he said. “I trust staff’s knowledge; they bring a lot of expertise to the table.”

City Manager Jane Brautigam echoed that sentiment: “There are times we would like to not make a recommendation, but we do believe it’s our job as the professional staff you pay a lot of money to.”

In a similar vein, council spent a fair amount of time discussing when staff should act and when they should seek council input. Morzel suggested a decision matrix that could be used to determine what information council receives, and how.

Brautigam said the idea was a good one, so long as it didn’t turn into a black hole of bureaucratic red tape. A decision matrix would have been useful, she said, for decisions such as the opportunity zone. She pursued the federal designation because of a stated council and planning priority to seek means and incentives for redeveloping Diagonal Plaza but was later criticized intensely by members of the public and council for failing to seek approval.

“I was under a lot of pressure thinking a timely decision needed made,” Brautigam said, adding an apology. “Looking back, it was a false pressure.”

Morzel thanked her for the apology. But, she said, in all the examples Brautigam gave where staff acted without council’s OK, “there’s just some common sense that should have been triggered.”

Other council members disagreed, saying it was hard to predict what issues might be controversial. Staff shouldn’t be thinking of public backlash when trying to craft solutions to the community’s big issues.

“I want to make sure staff isn’t so worried about controversy that they don’t do innovative things,” Brockett said. “If 100% of what they bring us we think is OK, it probably means they’re not shooting high enough.”

When mistakes are made, Jones said, council needs to set the tone of “not crucifying people. That’s part of our responsibility is to keep things in perspective.”

Paid assistants for council

Councilwoman Cindy Carlisle floated this idea as a way to help elected officials with their crushing workload, paid for out of the city’s contingency funds. The issue, City Attorney Tom Carr said, is that Boulder’s charter stipulates that any city employee can not act on directions from council members.

Young suggested another approach: Reduce the workload or pay council more. Salary bumps for council have been attempted on the ballot before and “gone down in flames numerous times,” as Brockett noted.

“I would take an assistant over higher pay any day,” Carlisle said.

Brautigam suggested a pilot program wherein one person was added to the city manager’s office to do work for all of council, as needed. Specific job duties — such as conducting research, compiling materials or drafting emails — would need to be defined clearly before implementation so as not to run afoul of the law.

On the budget:

Carlisle also suggested that council have more input earlier in the budget process. To that end, an April 9 discussion was added to the agenda.

On a proposed head tax:

Another Carlisle idea was abandoned Friday night: a tax on employees.

“After talking with a few people,” she said, “I don’t think this is the right time.”

On bringing custodial workers into the city workforce:

Currently, janitorial workers are contractors. It was a Morzel suggestion to make them city employees; several council members supported her proposal. It will be explored in conjunction with budget discussions.

“For me, it’s a social equity thing,” Morzel said. “It basically shuts to door to anyone having any inspiration to move up the ladder. We’re picking on a special class of people that cannot move up in the city organization.”

Next City Council meeting: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, 1777 Broadway

On the agenda: Study session on the results of the 2018 community survey and an update/discussion on pursuit of a joint development agreement for the University Hill hotel

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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Budget Growth and Development

0 Comments Leave a comment

  1. As problematic as the opportunity zones was the 2017 ballot issue 2Q debacle and the city attorney’s refusal then to enforce our campaign finance laws, which is why the city appointed eleven of us to their campaign finance and elections working group. Voters passed our issue 2E this year, fixing 2Q. Council considered our recommendations about campaign finance at their Dec 11 study session.

    I would support raising Council pay so that it becomes their full-time job. But, likely since only thirty-six percent of Boulder believes Council represents them, according to a survey the Camera reported a couple of years ago, voters repeatedly turn down a pay raise.

    I think one solution is to make ballot initiatives easier, which voters endorsed by passing our working group’s issue 2G this year by 71 to 29%, allowing Council to implement online petitions for initiatives and referendums. Once implemented, this will allow us to accomplish things Council has no time or inclination for. Once our government as a whole is more responsive, maybe people will pass that pay raise.

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