Rachel Friend: Follow facts, data to guide Boulder’s future

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Rachel Friend, mother, activist and city council candidate

Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 (Updated Oct. 13, 2019)

Rachel Friend’s run for elected office was born in the fire, as she says. She spent countless hours in council chambers and neighborhood meetings urging leaders to move quickly on a plan for flood mitigation at land owned by the University of Colorado near her south Boulder home. 

The experience colored her view of local government.

“I got to see the good, the bad, the ugly of how things work in this city,” Friend said. CU South — as both the 308-acre property and the entire issue of flood protection and annexation has come to be known — is “a good poster child for what we haven’t been doing well in the last few years.”

As Friend sees it, council members introduced delays into the process by first selecting a design that CU opposed and then continuing to pursue plans that didn’t further negotiations. During a  February meeting, staff informed council that a directive to increase detention above and beyond the original design would cost twice as much and still not be acceptable to the university. Six months after that direction was given, council voted to abandon it but stuck by its design decision despite continued opposition from CU.

“I laughed off (the idea of running) for six months, probably,” Friend said. “Then the city council made another huge bungled decision on floods, and I was like, OK. It sealed the deal for me.”

Four additional months later, council finally agreed to pursue tweaks to the design in order to get CU on board. Those options have not yet been revisited by council.

Pursuing flood mitigation tops Friend’s agenda. But social justice also figures heavily into her platform. An attorney (though not in Colorado), Friend has represented asylum seekers held in the Aurora immigrant detention center. She also teaches criminal justice at Front Range Community College and was active in pushing for Boulder’s assault weapons ban.

Having worked on such nationally divisive issues, Friend sees more similarities than differences in Boulder’s controversial problems — namely, growth and development.

Philosophically, she said, people want the same things for the city: increased racial and ethnic diversity; a more equal distribution of incomes; a walkable, bikeable built environment that allows a low-impact lifestyle, climate-wise. 

Most people agree on “where they want to get,” Friend said. Where the split occurs is “how you get there.”

When philosophy collides with reality, that’s when breakdown occurs, Friend said. For example, her image of a developer “is Donald Trump. I don’t think most true progressives would say they are for developers.”

But at the same time, developers are still an inevitable part of the evolution of a city. And most local developers don’t fit the Trump profile; they live here, too, and care about their town.

“I find most people are an odd mix of reality, fact and fantasy in Boulder,” she said. For her part, Friend believes that “facts and data need to guide” decision-making. 

“If the data says density on mass transit corridors is going to be the best thing for climate resiliency, then that’s what we need to do rather than back into an alternate outcome because of our fears,” she said. “If this world is going to be saved, places like Boulder have to lead the way. If data came out and said it would be catastrophic for the human species to put density along mass transit corridors, I’m open to looking at that.”

But, she added, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Who she says she represents: Residents impacted by the 2013 floods; vulnerable groups (asylum seekers, people with disabilities, abused kids, survivors of domestic violence or otherwise “in harm’s way”); “the next generation”

Campaign filings: https://election.bouldercolorado.gov/report.php?report=CandE&statementID=1094

Endorsed by: Boulder Progressives, Better Boulder, Open Boulder, South Boulder Creek Action Group, The Coalition, Colorado Ceasefire PAC, Boulder Daily Camera (Not an endorsement, but Friend received 100% on the Planned Parenthood questionnaire) 

Priorities: “Embracing change and making decisions based on facts and data and not leaning into fear as a government actor, especially on housing, transportation and the environment”; flood mitigation on CU South; social justice

Relevant op-eds: “Boulder’s commons not just for those at front of the line

Bury the fake news, vote Neguse

Why you might want to vote for her: Through her work and advocacy, Friend has a record of standing up to those in power for those without it. She represented asylum seekers pro bono and has also served as a guardian ad litem.

From her work on CU South and the assault weapons ban, she’s familiar with how the local government works. She has also consistently shown up to city council meetings for those and other topics, such as police oversight.

She has shown up, too, for causes that align with her beliefs. She attended the March for Police Oversight and the city council listening session on racism.

Why you might not want to vote for her: Given her CU South advocacy, some may consider Friend a one-issue candidate — and maybe one that hasn’t ingratiated her with current council members, at least three of whom will remain in their posts after this election. She has been a vocal critic of their inaction on flood mitigation and other important topics. It may be difficult to build the goodwill necessary to get things done depending on who gets elected. 

A certain amount of criticism is part of campaigning, and Friend hasn’t been over the top with her comments. Incumbents Aaron Brockett and Bob Yates have both donated to Friend’s campaign; both are well positioned to bridge the gap between current and new members.

Friend feels that some of the criticism is gendered: “There is a misogynistic tinge to painting women who are calmly advocating for change as ‘difficult.’” She also said that, while collegiality has its place, it isn’t necessarily serving the public.

“Staff are not feeling psychologically safe working for the city, and constituents’ needs are not being addressed. I will not shy away from discussing thorny issues. 

“I have been careful not to make my criticisms of council personal, and I look forward to productive working relationships with everyone.”

The charge that Friend is a one-issue candidate isn’t entirely fair; she spoke to many of the issues with some degree of knowledge and decisiveness and was equally as passionate and informed on social justice issues as on flood mitigation.

Friend doesn’t mind the label. She embraces it.

I’m happily your flood mitigation candidate,” she said at a candidate forum sponsored by the Boulder Chamber. “If my legacy was saving lives, I could not be prouder.”

Friend on the issues

Housing: Boulder’s housing issues are a thread that runs through many of Friend’s positions on other topics. On the issue of police oversight by civilians, for instance, she thinks more police officers living in Boulder would help mend relationships between cops and the community.

“We’ve got police officers driving in from” elsewhere, she said. “You’ve got people policing strangers. It’s not community policing when you’re leaving” at night.

Friend wants every tool on the table to encourage more housing, including government subsidies and interventions and a loosening of regulations to encourage smaller, attached market-rate housing attainable to the middle class. She ties land use, housing and transportation together and is in favor of urban infill, especially along transit corridors.

Boulder has prepared itself well for density: height limits, open space, a good transit backbone, a robust affordable housing program and impact fees at their legal maximum. All we’re missing, in her mind, is the density itself. 

Even if the region’s transportation system changed dramatically to be climate friendly, Friend would still want to accommodate more people in Boulder. She mentions the historically racist nature of local zoning; even the greenest commute won’t fix the decades of segregation that exclusionary land use policies created.

“For social justice, you want to live in a community you’re part of during the day,” she said. “It impacts where you put your volunteer hours, where you donate money, how your kids are shaped.”

Without more economic diversity, “we’re developing into a master-servant class where the people who police us and serve us food and who bag our groceries and clean our houses are having to commute in. That’s not the kind of community that I feel good about.”

Homelessness: Boulder’s current approach of coordinated entry is “great and a good start,” Friend said. She’s waiting to see more data before offering stronger support or criticism, though she understands the reported concerns of unhoused residents who don’t want to participate in the program.

She would be in favor of increasing the number of nights winter sheltering is provided, which council voted against earlier this year. She is not in favor of the ban on allowing sleeping residents to cover themselves with blankets or tents, which she believes doesn’t “work.”

“People need to be able to be safe in the world. Period,” Friend said. “I liken it to how disgusted and outraged we are at the national level that we’ve got people sleeping in (immigrant) detention centers on cement floors under aluminum blankets. And yet they’re warmer than people in Boulder are. (What’s happening at the detention centers) is disgusting and vile, and yet it shines a light on how disgusting and vile it is that those things are happening here.”

CU south/flood mitigation: Friend obviously has a lot to say on this topic; it can’t all be captured here. Broadly, she is very critical of city council for initially choosing a design plan (Variant 1) that was opposed by the property owner (University of Colorado). She has continued to push to explore the other option (Variant 2) even after staff recently said it would present too much of an engineering challenge to build a key element (a flow restrictor) away from U.S. 36, necessitated by the Colorado Department of Transportation deciding nothing could be built on land it owns along the highway.

CDOT has not been transparent enough about its decision, Friend said. Representatives have not attended any public meetings (or been very responsive to media questions).

“We have a huge stakeholder in this project that is the only one that hasn’t been engaging with the public at all,” Friend said. “It feels a little bit veiled.”

Though Friend has been critical of council rehashing old ideas, she sees her devotion to Variant 2 differently. The design is still worth pursuing because it was the cheapest option, the one most adaptable to climate change and the one that CU would sign off on. It would save time and money, she contends.

Both Variants 1 and 2 were initially planned to use CDOT’s right-of-way. Staff was heavily criticized by city council and some members of the public for providing direction that CDOT would allow use of that land. Friend doesn’t agree with that. 

“I am not going to criticize city staff,” she said. “I’ve seen them working tirelessly on this project. People are doing their best with the shifting tides and directives form city council. I think the buck stops with city council in all errors on this project.”

Budget: Friend is “not that familiar” with the budget, she said. Her answer lacked many specifics, but she did have a few general ideas of how to shift spending.

Friend is critical of the continued acquisition or addition of open space to the city when the department is facing $40 million in unfunded maintenance. She specifically referenced the Hogan Pancost property,  3 acres of which council voted to dedicate as open space. The land needs to be restored at an estimated cost of $5,000 to $10,000.

“Why are we (adding) another 3 acres (that) we need to restore? We already have a backlog. We have a tax drying up; we can’t continue to go with wishlist.”

Hogan Pancost comes up again when it comes to general spending. Flood detention is planned for the site; $2 million to $6 million may be spent to protect 26 homes, though a staff analysis found that the houses could be protected individually for much cheaper. 

A more expensive mitigation design was chosen for CU South as well.

“We rejected the most cost-effective mitigation plan that would have given us the highest 500-year protection,” Friend said. “Why would we do that?”

Friend sees room for “efficiencies” by not prolonging processes. Two examples she references are the ad hoc citizen group two members of council put together on CU South — without informing the rest of council — for which the city paid $10,000 to a facilitator, and the hours spent on study sessions and public hearings on 5G technology, though no specific proposals to bring the technology to Boulder were being considered. 

Both are examples of officials responding to resident requests. Constituents should be heard, Friend said, but that can be accomplished without wasting taxpayer resources.

“Our values are very expensive,” she said. “I think we need to be mindful of spending taxpayer money in a way that’s useful and productive, not just re-creating wheels and over processing.”

Police oversight: While Friend is “supportive” of Boulder pursuing civilian oversight, she thinks it doesn’t go far enough.

“I think that’s a little bit putting lipstick on a pig,” she said. “I think we need to go to deeper-level solutions on this.”

Friend is in favor of removing “conflicts of interest” from the criminal justice system. Ticketing revenue goes to the city, creating an incentive to issue them. Footage from officer-worn body cameras and dash-mounted car cameras should be publicly available and routinely sent to those who interact with police.

“That should be part of the process,” she said. “The power imbalance is already so great, it doesn’t harm health and safety to have people who have been stopped have the right to that.”

Friend would also like to pursue ways to reduce the likelihood of residents being stopped by police, given the documented racial disparities — locally and nationally — in stops and arrests.

“A lot of discriminatory stops come from speeding, so we can look at ways to reduce speeding in Boulder. Do we need more lights, more speed humps? Are there different ways we can do things that would reduce the likelihood of someone being stopped?”

Friend doesn’t want anyone to confuse her belief in systemic change with an anti-police stance. Cops perform a public good; it’s the focus of policing that needs altering from one of suspicion and looking “for the bad guy” to one of protection.

“When the shit hits the fan, we are grateful for police,” she said. “If we had firefighters coming up to our windows to look for (unwatched) candles or nurses on the street jabbing us with vaccinations, we wouldn’t like those professions either.”

Attended March for Police Oversight: Yes

Attended city council listening session on racism: Yes

Hill hotel: Friend is “generally supportive” of the project. (Most) Hill businesses want it, and revitalization has long been a city goal. Unlike some other candidates, she accepts the findings of a report and opinions of city staff and property owners that a hotel would positively contribute to the Hill’s economic environment.

“It’s already been pretty extensively reviewed by city council,” she said. “It’s going to be an economic driver in an area where we have committed to driving” change.

Lethal control of prairie dogs: “I’m not psyched about” it, Friend said, but “it’s an unfortunate reality” that prairie dogs are harming land so it can’t be used for agriculture or carbon sequestration.

“I’m a vegetarian; I don’t really believe in harming animals. I think that for health and safety, we have to look at what is required to address the issues.”

Occupancy limits: Friend is in favor of eliminating the rules on unrelated people living together. She would step up enforcement of the issues that concern neighbors.

“The issue really comes down to fears about things that might produce,” she said. “I don’t think anybody is really afraid about if people are related to each other. We’re concerned about noise and parking. Those are the things we should be looking at rather than arbitrary numbers.”

Muni: “I’ll have to see the financials,” Friend said, before deciding if she is in favor of efforts to create a city-owned electric utility. But she leans toward non-support. She was one of three candidates at the June Raucous Caucus to answer a yes/no lighting-round question “Do you support the muni” with a no.

“I think there’s a tipping point, and we may well be at it, where we’re better off spending our money on other environmental goals than the very expensive litigation.”

Council’s use of moratoria: “Moratoria seem to me like lazy governance,” Friend said. “Don’t waste your time revisiting the same thing. Gather the facts and make the decision you’re going to make. It’s a lack of efficiency to default to moratoriums.”

Opportunity Zone moratorium: Friend was very critical of this moratorium and council’s criticism of staff for pursuing designation of the opportunity zone. She felt Boulder should have worked on ways to incentivize the type of development it needs — affordable housing — rather than placing restrictions.

“I get that it’s a Trump tax cut and people are leery of it for that reason,” she said. But “Diagonal Plaza, the Arapahoe corridor are fantastic opportunities for affordable housing and business.”

Height limit: “Our actual codified height limit (of 55 feet, approved by the voters) is great,” Friend said. I wouldn’t want to tinker with it” by decreasing or increasing it — and definitely not without asking voters

In general, she is in favor of building to 55 feet: “We have to maximize the places we can build if we’re going to address the housing imbalance.”

Neighborhood opposition to development: Friend empathizes with residents who don’t feel council is responsive to their feedback.

“As a constituent, I don’t feel I’m heard,” she said. “I never get emails or calls back.”

But given her housing approach, she is likely to encounter much resistance from residents. Friend would tackle that by incorporating more “facts and evidence” in the public engagement process rather than just providing opportunities for “people to vent.”

It’s about combatting fear, she said. “The idea of more neighbors is scary. Most of us have had bad neighbors. How do we get at that fear?”

With two things, Friend said: facts and data — “We can talk about things like neighborhood character, which you can’t define, or we can talk about things like noise after 9 p.m. or parking spaces,” she said — and a positive vision of “what Boulder 2100 is going to look like, (of) what we want for our kids.”

“I think that Boulder will get on board,” she said. And if not, “at the end of the day, as a decision maker, you’re going to have to make decisions that don’t please everyone.”

While we do need (to strive for) consensus, we can’t languish looking for it. We need to get things done.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated to include two op-eds Friend co-authored in the Daily Camera, and to add to her list of endorsements. It may be updated further with additional or clarifying information.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle. Edited by Deanna Hardies.

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Maybe City Staff (for example City Manager Jane Brautigan) would feel safer if they didn’t do unethical and antidemocratic things like apply for a federal opportunity zone without informing our City Council ahead of time or asking their permission. This gave the City Council no choice other than imposing a moratorium. It wasn’t lazy governance, it was an appropriate reaction to an unelected out of control staff. Firing our current city mamager with cause and other Boulder city staff who think they work for the Chamber of Commerce and not the City of Boulder in its entirety should be priority one for the next council.

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