Emails: Boulder councilman discouraged nonprofits from supporting citizen petition

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Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020

City councilman Bob Yates warned two local nonprofits about supporting a citizen petition effort to amend the city’s occupancy limits, according to emails shared with Boulder Beat. The messages included assertions that an endorsement of the measure would “hurt” the organizations and their clients and potentially lead to “unhappy donors,” while also referencing Yates’ personal donations.

Both of the nonprofits in question receive city funding. Representatives say they do not feel financial support was being explicitly threatened, but expressed confusion as to Yates’ motivation and in what capacity the emails were sent.

Councilman Yates insists the correspondence was of a personal nature — he states as much in some of the emails — and the city likewise took that position, refusing to release them as part of a Colorado Open Records Act request.(Author’s note: Boulder Beat is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the city to force the official release of the documents.)

Yates voluntarily shared one set of emails after the city was made aware of Boulder Beat‘s intention to file suit, and shared an email to a second nonprofit after the suit was filed in court.

In a Tuesday interview, Yates maintained he was not attempting to discourage either organization from endorsing the petition and that he communicated clearly the personal nature of the messages.

I support both of them in my personal capacity,” he said. “I think I’m allowed to make donations personally and I think I’m allowed to communicate my personal opinions.”

Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) endorsed Bedrooms Are For People on June 18, citing the needs and desires of their clients. On June 27, EFAA Executive Director Julie Van Domelen received an email from Yates.

“I was a bit surprised to read that EFAA has taken a position endorsing the proposed “Bedrooms are for People” city charter amendment. That seems to me to place EFAA in an advocacy position on what will undoubtedly be a highly political and contentious issue, assuming the charter amendment reaches the ballot. There undoubtedly will be donors to EFAA who will be unhappy with this position.

Second, I fail to understand how the proposed charter change is aligned with EFAA’s mission of aiding families. If there are truly families who are adversely affected by the current occupancy limits (for example, through doubling up in a single dwelling unit), there would seem to be better solutions for this than the proposed charter amendment. Indeed, I believe that the proposed charter amendment, if passed, will actually hurt low-income families because increasing occupancy limits for those not in family units will invariably increase rents throughout the city, as landlords are able to charge per room, without limitation.

As someone who has supported EFAA in the past, and who hopes to support EFAA in the future, it would be helpful for me to understand the thinking of the EFAA Board of Directors in endorsing this proposed city charter amendment. Please give me a call if you’d like to discuss.”

Read the full email exchange

Van Domelen noted Yates’ “clear” words about reaching out in a personal capacity as, but “I thought we were talking about a public policy issue. … It was clear he was talking about a legislative issue.” Van Domelen was once herself an elected official: The mayor of Lyons.

When asked if she felt Yates was attempting to discourage EFAA’s endorsement, Van Domelen said, “Definitely. I think if you read that, ‘You may lose donors…'(and the part about) his support makes you think … would he continue to support EFAA? I also read that as, ‘I disagree but I kind of want to figure out why you guys are supporting this.'”

On Tuesday, Yates said, “I wrote to her out of concern as a supporter for EFAA my personal capacity about EFAA’s endorsement of what looked like a probably pretty charged political question.

“Donors can obviously continue to support an organization or not if they feel the organization is fulfilling the mission that aligns with donors beliefs. There are organizations I’ve stopped supporting for various reasons and organizations. I started supporting for various reasons.

I was not indicating I would withdraw support.”

Van Domelen said she did and does not feel EFAA’s city funding was being threatened. But, she said, “Other people might have taken it differently than me. I have thick skin.”

In candid conversations about the emails, people within both organizations who saw the emails said they felt Yates was implying that support for the nonprofits was at stake, and it was difficult to distinguish if that was Yates’ personal support or his support as a city council member. These individuals did not wish their names to be attached to these comments, citing fear of reprisal. Said one, “I do not want to make a political enemy of Bob Yates.”

Yates declined to acknowledge that his role as a city council member may have influenced the way his emails were perceived, merely repeating, “I am allowed to have personal opinions.”

“I can either not communicate or I can communicate as clearly as I possibly can,” he said. “I used my personal account, I started my very first sentence” with a disclaimer about this being a personal communication. If there are ways I could have better communicated, he said, “I’m open to suggestions.”

Attention Homes had not yet taken a position when Yates emailed, one day after his message to EFAA.

“I hope all is well with you. I still owe you some art work for you to use at Attention Homes, or sell, as you wish. COVID kinda interrupted that intention.

I heard that Attention Homes is considering endorsing the bedrooms city charter amendment. My personal belief is that would hurt both your organization and the young people you serve. I’m happy to discuss, if you’d like. Just give me a shout.”

View the original email

Executive Director Chris Nelson was confused by the unsolicited message, as Attention Homes had not yet considered an endorsement.

“We hadn’t discussed it in any way whatsoever,” Nelson said. “I hadn’t been asked to endorse; nobody had reached out to me yet.”

At first blush, Nelson wasn’t sure whether Yates’ email was sent in an official capacity or a personal one.

I did not have any clarity whatsoever about whether it was personal or political motivation,” Nelson said. Still today, “I don’t fully understand what his motivations are.”

Like Van Domelen, Nelson did not feel Attention Homes’ city funding was being threatened.

“I think probably valid is that it implied there was a threat in there,” Nelson said. Yates wrote that an endorsement is “not good for the agency, not good for your population — I did not initially read that as a threat. How can that be bad for people who need access to affordable housing?

I did not feel threatened. I felt confused.”

That confusion speaks to the special position that elected officials hold, wrote Michael Huemer, professor of ethics at the University of Colorado, in response to an emailed inquiry. A simple disclaimer that an email is personal is not enough.

“It’s not enough because the reader could still reasonably fear that the official will not in fact separate his personal feelings from his use of his official powers,” Huemer wrote. “There are many ways that government officials can make life difficult for your organization if they want to. … If you’re even unsure whether that will happen, you might decide it’s best to err on the side of caution and do whatever the official wants (if it’s not too costly to you).”

Such behavior can erode trust in public officials and, ultimately, the democratic process, Huemer wrote. Without people and groups feeling free and safe to publicly declare their support, it’s hard to gauge how the public truly feels.

“For a democratic society, the public is supposed to control the state; the state isn’t supposed to control public opinion.”

Attention Homes was still weighing an endorsement when the Colorado Supreme Court last week declined to rule on a district court decision that Boulder did not have to place the measure on the ballot despite giving incorrect information to campaigns regarding signature thresholds and deadlines. City council twice voted against putting the measure to voters; Yates was in the majority on those decisions.

“(Yates) should have recused himself from conversations and decisions regarding our measure” or at least disclosed his emails, said Chelsea Castellano, one of the organizers of the petition in question, Bedrooms Are For People. “He knew our fate was going to be lying in his hands. At the same time he’s supposed to be making an objective decision as to whether or not we’d be on the ballot” he was also sending these emails.

“There’s no way in which he wasn’t using his position of power to try and influence their decision,” Castellano said. “Clearly the lines of ethics are being crossed in these conversations.”

In response to questions about whether he should have disclosed the emails, Yates said. “I think I’m entitled to communicate with any constituent in the city. I don’t disclose all those to my council colleagues, nor do they.” 

The issue of occupancy limits has been a hotly contested one, and not just this election cycle. Residents and housing experts have for years recommended that Boulder reassessment its rules on unrelated persons living together; city council has pledged to assemble a working group.

EFAA’s Van Domelen said it has been among the most controversial issues the organization has taken a position on. Yates’ emails and those from others opposed to EFAA’s stance were shared with the board, but the nonprofit did not rescind its endorsement. Members of a client advisory group overwhelmingly support looser occupancy rules and shared with board members personal examples of how living with others kept them from being homeless, helped them escape domestic violence or allowed them to afford housing costs.

We can’t not take stands because someone might not agree,” Van Domelen said. “This is about taking a stand on things. Who am I supposed to listen to here? A city council member or participants of an organization I represent?”

(Disclosure: The author has conducted paid contract work for EFAA in the past, including at the time of the endorsement and email exchange with Yates. That contract lapsed in July.)

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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