Benita Duran wants to ‘open the doors’ of Boulder government

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Benita Duran, former assistant city manager and city council candidate.

Friday, Sept. 27, 2019

Benita Duran began her political career as a college student, stumping for the man who became Denver’s first Hispanic mayor, Federico Peña. She served happily in his administration for eight years.

When she left the state, it was because a new candidate had taken office: Wellington Webb, Denver’s first black mayor. (And predecessor to eventual governor John Hickenlooper.)

It was an exciting time in Denver, Duran said, one in which government institutions were being flung wide open to diversity.

“It was Denver’s first opening up of city hall and local government to folks, and I was a part of that.”

Duran is hoping she can herald a similar movement toward inclusion in Boulder.

“I don’t like the way we’ve sort of contracted and find ourselves in this very exclusive and uninviting and unwelcoming place in community,” she said. “It doesn’t feel right. I want to be at the table of the city council to help open the doors.”

Boulder is where Duran came after she left Denver city government, joining the city as a project administrator in 1993. One of her first jobs was to keep track of council’s goals — by hand, via spreadsheets. She also aided in the creation of the Dairy Center for the Arts and the establishment of public access television.

A fifth-generation Coloradan, Duran’s fingerprints are all over the state. Under Peña, she helped connect workers with training and job opportunities at Denver International Airport as it was being built. She guided Denver Public Schools through the planning stages of the I-70 expansion and its impacts on the district. Now, she is working to establish a Latino Cultural Arts Center near Mile High Stadium.

“I’m big into community and placemaking,” she said. “I’ve really practiced engaging people, practiced opening the doors and providing access and connecting people. I think Boulder could use more of that now.”

Any discussion on inclusion in Boulder ultimately leads to a discussion about housing — which, in Boulder, is more likely to divide the community than bring it together. Duran wants more and a greater diversity of housing, which she wants to encourage through streamlined government processes for the types of homes Boulder wants and needs, rather than restrictions to prevent what it doesn’t. She is a believer in density to address Boulder’s big three woes: affordability, traffic congestion and climate impacts.
It’s not a popular position among many in Boulder who reject the arguments and evidence for compact development. Even among those who acknowledge the supposed benefits of density, there exists the truth: Many residents simply don’t want more people in the city.

Duran has no particular plan for how to bring those residents to the table. Like with many issues, she’s running on her resume.

“I’m willing to convince people. We’re in these painful conversations, (but) Boulder’s smart enough, resourceful enough, that we should be able to figure it out. I think I can bring all those years of experience to see the pieces in a clearer way but also to work with folks at the table gracefully. I think that can happen around the council table and that can happen in the community, too.

“I don’t fear the conversations.”

Who she says she represents: “People who aren’t at the table”

Endorsed by: Boulder Progressives, Open Boulder, Better Boulder, South Boulder Creek Action Group, The Coalition, (Not an endorsement, per se, but Duran received 100% on the Planned Parenthood questionnaire)

Campaign filings: https://election.bouldercolorado.gov/report.php?report=CandE&statementID=1111

Priorities: Housing, social equity, transportation, environment, economic vitality

Relevant op-eds: “Let’s get our money’s worth at Alpine-Balsam

Why you might want to vote for her: Duran’s resume is packed with relevant experience, from her many roles in local and state government to work with numerous nonprofits and stints in the private sector. More than a dozen of those positions have been held in Boulder over her 25 years here, giving Duran a thorough knowledge of the community and its issues.

Having been on the other side of the government equation from elected officials, as a city staff member, Duran has an appreciation for what’s possible and what’s realistic.

Spending has to be offset; projects have to be prioritized. As far as council’s workplan and goals go, she sees room for change.

“I think the meetings, the times, the way we spend our time is a little out of control,” she said. “There’s got to be a more efficient way to do this.”

A woman of color, Duran would also bring diversity to council. She’s interested in ways to foster inclusion, from providing translation of city documents to focusing engagement “where people are” by possibly changing council meeting locations or times.

Why you might not want to vote for her: Duran frequently answers policy questions by first ruminating on various perspectives and lamenting the need for “community building” and bridging cultural and political divides. While such thoughtful consideration is a positive quality, it’s tough to get Duran to focus on answering the questions at hand. As such, it’s difficult to know exactly where she stands on certain things without serious effort.

Duran’s pontificating doesn’t feel like a dodge: She has several specific proposals and clear positions on the issues. The excessively long answers (heavy on her experience) had the feel of someone trying to prove that she deserved a seat at the table, rather than someone focused on communicating what she would do with that seat when she got it.

That didn’t change even when presented with this criticism. Duran’s answer was as long as usual, with much thoughtful consideration of the feedback and just a hint of the defense I was asking for.

As a Latina and as a woman, “I come from a place where people don’t necessarily care what I think,” she said. “That’s a different shift for me. I’m not typically in this world of one-minute answers for sound bites. That’s my own discipline to figure out.”

That Duran is not adept at campaigning might not speak to her performance as an elected official. But it’s worth keeping an eye on to see if she can get down to the business of decision making.

Duran on the issues

Housing: Duran is a believer in density — “It’s about using existing space better, the efficiency of building as many doors as you can at the time of construction” — and cutting red tape to foster creativity.

“People say all these units look alike. It’s because of the (requirements such as) floor area ratio and what you can get” out of a piece of land, she said. “There was more freedom 20 years ago in the city; I don’t ever remember planners (when) I worked for the city having so much power and control over what you could do.”

Boulder’s layers of regulations also add to cost, Duran said.

“The costs of creating it are very high here in Boulder. It isn’t just one review; you have to submit plans and have the review and schedule. That costs hundreds of dollars. What the city requires of a project is pretty amazing and challenging.
“Instead of this long track to get through concept review and on the planning board and a call-up to council, I think there can be an accelerated process.”

Such speed shouldn’t be for all housing, Duran said, just projects that address “our community needs and values.”

“I’m not into the single-family mini-mansion fast-tracking opportunity,” she said. “I’m aligned with incentives that help create more diverse, affordable housing options.”

Not all incentives have to be regulatory, Duran believes. Something as simple as education could incentivize owners of single-family homes to make better use of their space by adding an accessory dwelling unit, for example, or renting out empty rooms.

“There’s so many tools to sharpen in the toolbox and so many creative incentives,” she said. “There are ways to do workshops (for people) who do have that extra space but have no clue” how to use it for good.

Homelessness: Duran served on the board of Boulder Shelter for the Homeless for three years, including during the transition to a countywide coordinated-entry system. She praised the city’s increased investment in resources to combat homelessness. However, her full opinion on how well the approach is working will depend on data.

“The proof is in the data that follows in this next year to see how we did,” she said. “Maybe there are more resources to be aligned or maybe we’re doing good. Let’s tweak as needed.”

CU South/flood mitigation: Duran was a supporter of Variant 2. (This interview was conducted before staff said the option presented too much of an engineering and environmental challenge.) She is very critical of council and, to some extent, city staff for not prioritizing this issue and working more collaboratively with the University of Colorado.

“I was struck by (City Manager Jane Brautigam) saying we meet with the university twice a year,” she said. “There was a time there was more regular engagement with the university. The council could be meeting with the chancellors, the regents, having work sessions together.”

The regents have largely stayed absent from discussions with Boulder, leaving it up to Vice Chancellor Frances Draper, who has regularly attended city council meetings. There should be engagement that happens beyond these public appearances and the letters CU has sent to council, Duran said.

“There should be a different structure for engagement, and it should be regular and it should be more than two times a year. We’re not making any new friends right now on this CU South issue. I think CU has been very generous with what they’ve offered on the table.

“I consider the whole issue to be an environmental injustice that’s been done to that community to not take more swift and direct action to protect the people in harm’s way.”

Budget: Having worked in the city manager’s office, “I know that budget,” Duran said. She acknowledges the need to bolster the city’s sales tax revenue and thinks that cannot be accomplished by raising sales tax.

Boulder has the highest sales tax rate of neighboring communities. The rate is more on par with resort towns: Frasier, Winter Park, Snowmass … “that’s not where we should be,” Duran said.

She would like to assess Boulder’s sales tax on food, something many other states and communities don’t have. It’s inequitable, she argues, because everyone needs food to live, so it burdens the poor. Perhaps if food wasn’t taxed in Boulder, lower-income residents might do more of their shopping here.

She also would like to see a shrinking of dedicated funds and those dollars shifted back to the general fund so that government spending can be flexible and responsive. Dedicated funds “are where we get locked in.”

It would be fair to ask CU to contribute a bit more to city needs as well. “They do burden the infrastructure beyond their land line. It’s the joy and the sorrow of the presence of the flagship university in Boulder.”

Boulder doesn’t have the authority to compel CU, a state entity, to do anything, though the university has shown a willingness to contribute to projects such as the 30th and Colorado pedestrian underpasses. Duran thinks cultivating a better relationship will help further collaborations.

Police oversight: Duran is supportive of the task force’s formation and work, though she is critical of the lack of homeless representation. The city’s recruitment process for members could have been better. (It was a short process, as council wanted to act quickly.)

“The burden and the opportunity on council is to really bring voice to community and their participation in that kind of thing,” she said. “A lot of folks aren’t in these sort of insider circles. It’s an insider’s group still. I’m out for broadening that audience and broadening that perspective that brings more people and changes the whole dynamic when you’re really engaging the people in the community and not just going for the usual suspects.”

She would like to see an improved “connection” between the community and the police department — particularly its leadership. She recommended a “walk with the chief” similar to the informal events for interaction with elected officials.

Duran participated in the March for Police Oversight this spring. She was bothered by the “symbolism” of having the doors locked at the police headquarters when marchers arrived there.

“To be standing there in front of a locked door … I just didn’t think it had the Boulder positive (feel) of the way we should be doing things” — engaging and being welcoming, she said. “The city could have turned that into a dialogue.”

She, like several people of color, was, if not critical, dismissive of city council’s listening session on racism, which she did not attend. “I saw it and thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, another one of those.’ Why am I going to go to that? I’ve been there before.”

Attended March for Police Oversight: Yes
Attended city council listening session on racism: No

Muni: Duran is a tentative supporter of the effort to create a municipal utility. Her final support will depend “on the numbers” — how much it will cost to acquire Xcel’s system. Boulder has promised to hold a final go/no-go vote once it has the final cost estimate, which Duran supports.

“The voters approved this,” she said. “We have to see it through.”

She would like to see more information being presented in English and Spanish so the community can engage in this critical issue.

Hill hotel: Duran supports this project because of the revitalization it would bring to the Hill — long a stated city goal. Council has been “foot-dragging” and “creating barriers” to the project rather than helping it along, she said.

“Something happening on the Hill is long overdue. If something was happening there, that sales tax would make a big difference. Instead of losing that revenue by sending people to Westminster to spend the night, that creates more incentive for people to stay here.”

Lethal control of prairie dogs: Duran supports exploring this method of control “in the most sustainable way” possible. That could include connecting with raptor rescue groups so that euthanized prairie dogs aren’t wasted, as Boulder County does.

Occupancy limits: Duran would change these “dated” limits to better reflect the changing demographics of Boulder, though she didn’t say how specifically.

“Empty nesters (are) trying to age in place because we don’t have other viable options,” she wrote in response to an emailed question. “Having a household of some unrelated residents isn’t the option for everyone, but for some it can be a fit.”

Changing the rules isn’t “going to be (an) easy or short process, but I am committed to open and fair public engagement and clear communication in process of consideration of making changes.”

Council use of moratoria: Duran is not a fan of governance by moratorium: “I used to say we should have a moratorium on moratoria,” she joked.

Council needs to not micromanage the professional staff they’ve hired, instead encouraging them “to pursue creative ways to finance things and bring things forward.” Moratoria are just “kicking the can down the road.”

Opportunity zone: Duran was working for the state economic development commission and the state advisory committee responsible for submitting proposals for opportunity zones. She also had a hand in connecting state experts on the program with economic vitality staff in Boulder. As such, she tends to see the opportunity in opportunity zone more than others — despite the use of its benefits by ultra-wealthy investors. The moratorium was “short-sighted” and unnecessary and kept Boulder from realizing those positives, Duran said.

The designation could have provided “an opportunity to make it a Boulder investment fund. You can create controls (and) have limits and restrictions that would (address) concerns” in the area. “It could also be a fund with only Boulder investors. I’m sure our wealthy community has capital gains. It could be a great way to fund infrastructure that we obviously don’t have the money to fund.”

Height limit: Duran is not in favor of lowering the voter-approved height limit by moratorium. There are places in town where 55 feet makes sense, she said.

“There could be a creative project that comes forward that makes sense to take advantage of height. (The moratorium) just shuts down all proposals that might be on the table.”

Neighborhood opposition to development: Duran understands the “diverse” concerns and “points of view” of residents when a project is planned for their neighborhood. But she believes the need for housing outweighs the concerns of neighbors.

“There are those of us who find it to be our cause to carry the water for those who don’t have a voice there and the access to a place to call home in Boulder,” she said. “Our housing crisis and economic disparity that are as much linked to where you sleep at night to what you do during the day,” she said. “That daytime/nighttime Boulder, I want it to be closer to equal.”

Author’s note: This article may be updated with additional or clarifying information.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. “Even among those who acknowledge the supposed benefits of increased density, there exists the truth: Many residents simply don’t want more people in the city.” Your words and my sentiments. We live in a democracy run by our elected city Council not in an unelected technocracy run by our city staff. Benita Duran sounds like she would prefer the latter option.

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