City manager finalists face divided Boulderites’ questions, concerns
Saturday, Feb. 26, 2021
As Boulder prepares to name a new city manager for the first time in a dozen years, the two final candidates come from vastly different cities that nonetheless are facing many of the same issues as the People’s Republic — issues that were the main focus of community questions at a Thursday night virtual meet-and-greet.
Kevin Jackson and Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde addressed homelessness, policing, transportation and land use, among other topics. City managers don’t set policy — elected officials do — but still hold the most powerful position in the city, giving them the potential to steer staff, and therefore council, toward particular solutions.
Questions on leadership and management style were scarce, reserved for Jackson. A resident (through Engagement Manager Sarah Huntley) asked about the Tipton Report, which revealed deep dissatisfaction in two city departments, and what he would do to promote a better culture within the organization.
City staff needs to be “connected to the city vision and goals,” Jackson said, “and looked at as leaders in our organization and actually empowered to make contributions.” They also need to “feel valued and understand the importance of service, coming to work every day feeling like they can make a difference.”
The report is “an advantage,” he added, as it gives him an idea of the starting point.
Though she wasn’t asked directly about workplace culture, Rivera-Vandermyde mentioned it in her brief introductory remarks.
In Minneapolis, “I started with a department that needed organizational change, it needed leadership,” she said. Rivera-Vandermyde was the fifth leader in three years: the “workforce had broken down. … There was healing, there was mending, there was a transformation of a department into one that was more community focused.”
Watch a video of the finalists’ forum
Here are some highlights from Thursday’s session, along with additional information on how policies in these cities compare to Boulder:
City managers have more control over the budget than perhaps anything else. The budget is developed internally over a period of many months; council plays an almost after-the-fact role of approving it, usually making only minor changes.
Both Austin ($4.2 billion) and Long Beach ($2.8 billion) have significantly larger budget’s than Boulder ($341 MILLION). All three cities (and many others) experiences big cuts during COVID. Long Beach, a port town, is also facing long-term decline in oil revenue.
Candidates were not asked about budgeting on Thursday.
Also noteworthy: City managers in both places make more than in Boulder. Spencer Cronk was appointed to lead Austin in 2018 for $325,000. Rivera-Vandermyde’s salary as deputy city manager is $250,016, according to the Statesman. Long Beach’s Tom Monica was earning a reported $290,656 in 2020 (plus benefits), closer to Jane Brautigam’s earnings of $271,342.85 in 2019.
Raises were skipped in 2020 due to the pandemic. The city manager, attorney and municipal judge’s salaries are public record, as they are subject to council approval.
Policing is another area where city managers have some level of influence. Though Boulder Police Department is under the leadership of Police Chief Maris Herold, technically the city manager is in charge of Her old. Plus, given community requests for reduced spending on cops, the city manager can make budget decisions that impact operations.
Residents’ questions ran the gamut from concerns over crime to calls to defund the police, Huntley said.
Austin was one of a handful of cities that drastically cut its police budget: by nearly one-third. The city “re-invested” $31 million to create offices of civil rights and violence prevention, plus beef up homelessness services and non-police mental health response. Forensics was pulled out of the police department, and 911 dispatch services are set to be separated next.
But to say Austin defunded the police is not accurate, Rivera-Vandermyde said.
“This is not a convo about demonizing the police,” she said. “I appreciate and value many who are serving,” but cops have taken on too much in recent years. “If we supported services earlier in the process, we may be able to reduce the amount of intervention officers have to do.”
“The discussions we’re having is how do you want your city to respond when you are in most need, at your most vulnerable? That’s at the heart of public safety.”
Long Beach reduced police spending by $10 million, or 5% (similar to Boulder’s 4.8% cuts). Police play a larger role in Long Beach politics, actually endorsing candidates for city council.
“Public safety is paramount,” said Jackson in responding to questions about policing. “It’s critically important in our local communities. … But we have other issues in the community where we have vulnerable populations that sometimes intersect with unfortunate circumstances involving the police. There are issues that are historical in nature and rooted in a lack of investment, I believe, in those communities.”
Both Jackson and Rivera-Vandermyde have been directly responsible for and involved with police reform in their respective cities.
This is one area where policy isn’t even set at the city level: Boulder is just one-third of Homeless Solutions Boulder County, and city council has (so far) not chosen to deviate from HSBC recommendations. But approaches in Long Beach and Austin offer a glimpse into the experience and opinions both applicants would bring with them.
As with policing, Huntley said resident-submitted questions were along a spectrum, with desire for more camp removals on one end and a push for increased services on the other.
Austin did away with its camping ban because residents felt it was “better to see folks” experiencing homelessness so they could be connected with services, Rivera-Vandermyde said. (A reinstatement is on the ballot for May, following a resident petition.) “Versus having a camping ban that, at least for this community, was making persons experiencing homelessness less secure.”
Her experiences in Minneapolis included moving a large encampment of mostly indigenous Americans into a navigation center. This was accomplished by extensive outreach to identify “the barriers” keeping them from help and housing and creating a program that respected cultural practices.
“It is increasingly clear to me that it’s not just shelter folks want. It is services. People want housing,” she said, praising Austin and Boulder’s housing-first approach “How do you end homelessness? It’s with housing, it is not necessarily with increased shelter.”
Long Beach still enforces its camping ban, something Jackson said is a necessary part of a “holistic approach.” That includes hiring outreach managers for unhoused persons and “quality of life officers” in the police department to respond to complaints about encampments, as well as an in-house “strike team” to conduct removals.
“Fundamentally, it is an issue of public safety on multiple dimensions,” Jackson said. “We are enforcing our camping ordinanceA piece of municipal (city-level) legislation., but we’re doing it in a compassionate way. We’re leaning in with compassion and services, trying to create additional opportunities with shelters.
“You gotta have the enforcement piece along with a continuum of services to support the homeless population.”
Unlike Boulder, Austin and Long Beach invested in expanded services and shelters, including buying up hotels to serve as temporary shelter while residents are connected with housing and other opportunities. Rivera-Vandermyde said 40 people per month, on average, are being placed in housing from hotels.
Long Beach has a department of sustainability and a new Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. So does Austin: In 2014, the city set a target for net-zero emissionsIn this context, the GHG that are released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels to g... by 2050.
Jackson said Long Beach has “made a lot of progress in making our city buildings more efficient,” and that 65% of the city fleet uses alternative fuels.
Rivera-Vandermyde mentioned Minneapolis’ work with Xcel Energy — the company is headquartered there — to reach climate goals, which includes a citizen advisory panel like the one Boulder is establishing. That city’s sustainability work “centers equity in a way I’ve never seen before,” she said.
Equity is also “at the core” of Austin’s strategy, Rivera-Vandermyde said. “Climate ambassadors” are used to reach “marginalized and disenfranchised communities” who will be impacted more by climate change — as seen in the recent power outages in Texas.
Transportation and Land use
Public transit systems in both cities are not highly utilized or comprehensive. But Austin’s is about to get better, with a $7.1 billion package that includes light rail and investment in affordable housing along transit corridors.
Huntley posed a question about land use and transportation to candidates. Linking the two has often been controversial in Boulder, with the Transportation Advisory Board actually barred from discussing land use matters (TAB this year asked that the rule, inscribed in its charter, be reversed).
“There’s no way transportation doesn’t impact land use as we move forward,” Rivera-Vandermyde said. “In Boulder, it’s a conversation I know is delicate.”
Austin’s attempts to update development codes have not gone smoothly. Residents sued to stop rezoning that would allow non-single-family homes in neighborhoods.
Opposition also shaped Long Beach’s land use code updates. Heights and density were reduced in the plan, passed in 2018 after a decade of work.
“We’re a coastal community that has been built out for a long time; a very compact, dense setting,” Jackson said. Updating rules for development was “very controversial for us, but we were successful in identifying areas where we want to promote affordable housing,” namely along transit corridors.
Final thought: Public engagement
Jackson: When it comes to divisive issues, “the city manager’s role is to understand all perspectives, all needs … and align that understanding with proposed solutions … that are practical and could actually work. Use that foundation to build consensus where you can (and use) data and facts to drive the formation of those recommendations. The data is a neutral way, or a way, to build a foundation for consensus.”
Rivera-Vandermyde: “We have to upstream community engagement so we are thoughtful about … getting insight earlier in the process. … We have to think about those communities who don’t generally show up” to the conversations (and) make sure we get the broadest feedback possible in our community.”
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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Governance Austin Boulder budget California city council City Manager city of Boulder climate change communication homelessness hotels housing Jane Brautigam Kevin Jackson land use Long Beach Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde policing public engagement public transit Sarah Huntley shelters Texas Tipton Report transportation Transportation Advisory Board
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