By Nicole Speer
This weekend, I and my fellow Boulder city council members agreed on what we will work to accomplish in the next two years. The list of priorities we generated represents weeks of effort, weaving together various community concerns with respect to existing work and staff limitations.
There will undoubtedly be disappointments with this list, but the collaboration, commitment and communication that generated these projects are worth celebrating.
As recently as Tuesday, there were feelings of frustration among everyone involved. Council members seemed frustrated by the lack of staff capacity for bold changes. Staff seemed frustrated by vague guidance from council members that didn’t acknowledge departmental constraints or priorities. Community members seemed frustrated when they didn’t see their values fully represented.
The positive outcomes from this week’s retreat are due to the fact that council members and staff made time to listen to and understand each other despite these frustrations.
This level of collaboration was particularly impressive for city staff, who are operating at critically low capacity and morale. Staff noted early on that they could not take on significant new projects until later in the year due to the need to rebuild departments hobbled by COVID and the Great Resignation. Yet they worked with council members to find a way to move the needle on big topics like affordable housing, homelessness and transportation.
I hope the community can recognize the magnitude of this gift from our staff. Finding ourselves in a position of low staff morale and capacity is not a coincidence. It is the result of past decisions made by national and state government and — yes — local residents.
The 2019 Tipton Report identified a “pervasive lack of psychological safety” and a “fear-based” culture among city staff, where “asking for help is not seen as allowable,” and “many citizen complaints are treated as the ‘customer is always right,’ without the ability to push back or ask clarifying questions” such that “issues languish, innovations remain latent [and] performance atrophies.”
The last council had just begun to address these issues when the pandemic hit early in 2020. Our response to this economic uncertainty was to furlough more than 700 of our city’s workers, leaving them with reduced incomes or no income almost overnight.
Not all of those workers returned. Those that remained found themselves doing multiple jobs to make up for their colleagues’ departures. Cutting staff and overburdening employees during a pandemic was a choice we made in lieu of dipping into our emergency funds. That, too, took a toll on morale.
Staff have since supported the community after the mass murders in the King Soopers shooting and the most destructive fire in state history. These traumatic events were not entirely under our control, but the decision to underinvest in our capacity to respond to emergencies is one that we make often, at all levels of government.
As we look to rebuild the ranks, Boulder’s housing crisis is also coming home to roost. City manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said this week that Boulder’s high cost of living was an impediment to finding and keeping staff, creating a cycle in which we lack the staff to adequately address our housing crisis, which then gets worse, which makes it harder to hire… and on it goes.
City council can’t squeeze water from a stone. But we can roll up our sleeves and get to work alongside our incredible staff. And the community can help.
Councilors can embrace our role as legislators, and overcome our reluctance to act. City council is empowered to draft and vote on ordinances without consuming years of staff time. We should do this in areas needing minor tweaks, or where other cities have already led the way.
The community can help by toning down its often brutal critiques of city staff and recognizing that city council — past and present — sets policy, not staff. We can be frustrated by what we perceive as a lack of progress and speak up about our frustration, but we need to take time to understand each other without demonizing one another.
When we are feeling disappointment, it is a completely normal human behavior to look for someone to blame. As Dr. Brené Brown notes, blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. The thing about releasing discomfort and pain by blaming others is that these emotions don’t go away: They just transfer to the victims of our blame. In a team setting, they shut down communication and destroy the trust that is critical for collaboration.
We are in a place where changing course is hard due to decades of action or inaction. We can use this moment to recognize our shared humanity and help each other move forward to the best of our abilities, or we can channel our disappointment and pain into blaming each other for our collective failures.
The choice is ours.
Dr. Nicole Speer is a member of Boulder city council. Her personal mission is “to courageously and compassionately empower excellence in people, organizations and communities.”
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