Local Gov’t 101: Glossary

Drop in on a Boulder city council meeting, and you might hear some unfamiliar words and phrases. Hopefully, this list will help you make sense of just what your elected officials are talking about.

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Something stumping you at a city meeting? Want to know what it means? Send suggestions for additional glossary terms to boulderbeatnews@gmail.com

Ordinance: A piece of municipal, or city-level, legislation.

First reading: The beginning of the process that codifies an ordinance; it’s the first opportunity for council to read and examine the text and purpose of a proposed ordinance. Council typically questions the drafters and proponents of the ordinance. In the end, council decides whether to publish the ordinance and schedule a required second reading

First readings of ordinances are often placed on the consent agenda.

Second reading: The second opportunity for council to examine an ordinance, and when the public is invited to weigh in or comment on the proposed ordinance. This reading concludes with a council vote to adopt or defeat the ordinance.

Subsequent readings (third, fourth, fifth, and so on): If council wishes, or if a change was made to the ordinance in the second reading, another reading is scheduled for continued deliberation, but normally council takes their final vote at the second hearing. 

Motion: Formal proposal calling for a vote 

Table: Postponement of a motion, or a vote

Open comment: Dedicated time at the beginning of regular council meetings, where up to 20 members of the public can express opinions about anything they like

Public hearing: Scheduled time allocated for the public to testify or share commentary/input on a particular ordinance or policy decision before council takes it to a vote

Pooling time: During public commentary, three or more people can pool their time so one speaker can speak for five minutes

Study session: A council meeting where members deep-dive into topics of community interest and city staff present relevant information. Though open to the public, there is no opportunity for public comment.

Consent agenda: The grouping of routine items on the city council meeting agenda (e.g. approval of past meeting minutes) that can be passed altogether in a single vote

Call-up: A request for city council to review decisions made by the city manager or a board or commission; this triggers a public hearing. Call-ups are most often used for planning and development projects.

Colloquy: When council members are granted permission to directly converse with one another during a council meeting. Typically, only one person is allowed to speak at a time; with the mayor choosing who speaks when. 

Quorum: Number of council members who need to be present in order for council to make a decision. In Boulder, it’s 5 council members. 

Citizen initiative: Process through which a citizen can enact legislation, via a petition and significant community endorsement

Amendment: Change made to existing documents, resolutions, or ordinances

Friendly amendment: An amendment that all council members agree enhances a document, resolution, or ordinance. Like regular amendments, it still needs a majority vote to be implemented.

Emma Athena is a reporter based in Boulder, Colorado. She investigates the intersection of people, the places they inhabit, and public policies. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s climbing or running across the mountains. See more of her work at emmaathena.com

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