Council, public to get glimpse of Boulder’s new online petitioning system

Patrick Murphy, left, shows John Marshall how to safely sign the petition — single-use pens and a tissue to prevent contact with the paper — on Thursday at North Boulder Park. (Shay Castle / Boulder Beat)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020

Boulder’s online petitioning system, one of the first of its kind in the nation, will debut January 1 after two years of work. The public will get a live demonstration Tuesday night as elected officials consider changes to direct democracy, public participation, and a plan to address occupancy limits — an issue raised during this year’s contentious local election cycle.

The system is called Boulder Direct Democracy Online, and it will allow users to view and sign petitions. The home screen will display active campaigns, their respective required number of signatures and how many each has garnered so far.

To sign a petition, users will sign in using their first and last name, birth date and Voter ID number. A confirmation code will then be sent — via text or call, voter’s choice — to the phone number on record. The code will last for five days and can be re-used for 24 hours.

If users don’t have a phone number on file, or the number is incorrect, an error message will appear directing them to the Secretary of State’s website to update their information.

Arizona-based Runbeck Election Services developed the system, for a total cost of $490,000. That price includes three years of maintenance.

No aid for charter changes

Some Boulderites were hopeful online petitioning would be available in time for 2020, which was the initial goal — particularly as the pandemic made the safety of in-person signature-gathering questionable. But this digital alternative wouldn’t have helped some of this year’s campaigns.

“The system will be available only for amendments to the Boulder Revised Code and not for charter amendments,” according to notes from staff. “State law requires that petitions for charter amendments be signed in the presence of a circulator.”

Direct Democracy Online could be tweaked “in the future” to accommodate charter amendments “if there is a change in state law.”

Council may also choose to codify its interpretation of conflicting state and local election rules by stating, definitively, that Colorado law governs charter amendment petitions. In Bedrooms Are For People’s lawsuit against the city, District Judge Andrew MacDonald noted existing conflicts in the language and the difficulty they presented  for residents — or even legal professionals — to understand.

If council makes that interpretation permanent, it would require double the signatures for charter amendment petitions in even-year elections and give campaigns 90 days to collect them, halving what Boulder previously provided. The change would come among numerous steps Boulder has taken in recent years to lessen barriers, including lowering signature thresholds for other types of direct democracy and this pursuit of online signatures.

Limited time for occupancy work

Meanwhile, work on the issue that shed light on the overlapping laws likely won’t begin this year. The planning and development department is currently handling other major projects — community benefit, use tables and parking codes — and an extension to the seven-year fracking moratorium.

Community benefit and the use tables update are set to wrap in 2021; parking work has already slowed due to reduced staff and budgets under COVID-19. Staff are hoping for a fracking moratorium extension through mid-2021, when Boulder County may adopt its regulations, to allow for consistency.

“Currently, the code amendment team does not have any excess capacity,” staff wrote. “If work on occupancy code changes were to begin in 2020, work on the Community Benefit and or Use Table code changes would need to slow and or cease depending on the scope and scale of occupancy code changes.”

Staff intends to bring forward some options for occupancy work at city council’s mid-January retreat “or sooner at council’s direction.”

Remote participation to continue

That agenda-setting retreat — dates TBD — will be virtual, as all council proceedings have been since March. In-person meetings will not resume this year, council confirmed Tuesday. When they might resume is still up in the air, but remote options for the public will remain.

In a public feedback session, “several residents said they hope an option for online participation continues post-pandemic,” staff wrote in notes to council. Other participants said online meetings are “convenient” and “less intimidating” than speaking in person.

Some adjustments are being made based on the feedback, and council will consider other changes Tuesday.

Staff-initiated changes
Shrink the timer during public hearing and open comment so city council members’ videos and reactions can be seen
Allow presentations from speakers (they will not be broadcast on Channel 8 or the livestream)
Interpretation (provided as needed)
Closed captioning (already on Channel 8 and livestream; staff researching options for Zoom)
Easier sign-up (new links beginning Oct. 14)
Less time for rules (Staff may stop reading these unless there are a lot of new speakers)
Change in emails winners of the open comment lottery receive
Training and navigation videos for the public (Staff developing workplan)

Questions for council to weigh (and subcommittee recommendation)
Allow online participation after in-person meetings resume? (Yes)
Encourage council members to leave video on when public is speaking? (Yes)
Allow participants to share video? (No consensus)
Require council members to use consistent background? (No consensus)
Commit to consistent cut-off of speakers to avoid appearance of favoritism? (No)
Create networking for participants during, before meetings (No)
Give the public access to chat feature (No)
Share Zoom link with anyone who wants to watch, not just participants (No)

6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13. Watch online or on Channel 8.

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

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