Local Gov’t 101: Public Participation (How to Play)

By Emma Athena
For Boulder Beat

Other Gov’t 101 stories:
Who’s in Charge?
Direct democracy
Civilian roles
Who to call
Glossary

I have something I want fixed about Boulder. What do I do with my complaint or grievance?

Where to file concerns or grievances depends on the topic.  

If it’s a service-type request, such as a pothole or a broken street light, the online Inquire Boulder portal is what to use. Inquire Boulder connects community members to the department best equipped to deal with a given concern. This is the most efficient way for the city to address day-to-day operational concerns. 

Inquire Boulder generates a service ticket that’s delivered to a department, where it’s added to a service queue. Individuals who submit service requests are supposed to be notified every step of the way and updated with project completion estimates. 

For people with concerns about a certain department’s actions or policy enforcement, it’s best to email department directors and division heads. For example, commentary on Boulder’s homelessness reduction strategy or affordable housing programs should be directed to Kurt Firnahaber, director of Housing and Human Services; ideas or concerns about policies addressing global warming should be addressed to Steve Catanach at the Climate Initiatives Department. 

A full list of Department Director contact information is found on the city’s website: bouldercolorado.gov/city-manager/city-manager-directors

I hit a dead end: Where do I go from here?

Sometimes there are conditions and/or policies that prevent or delay someone’s vision of improvement or a declared need. These constraints might come in the form of budgeting issues, staffing shortages, a lack of resources, or state and local laws. In theory, everyone should receive a response and reason for why certain actions or inactions were chosen in response to a stated claim, but it’s possible some commentary falls through the cracks.

Neighborhood Liaison Brenda Ritenour says to give her a call, and she can help explain the reasoning behind a delay or a decision not to pursue a citizen’s concern. If the complaint is better filed elsewhere, she’ll help direct it to the best place. 

A wonderful service in the neighborhood

Brenda Ritenour is Boulder’s Neighborhood Liaison. Her job is to support folks whenever and however they engage with the City and/or its neighborhoods. She describes herself as the ideal first-stop for any and all questions related to life in Boulder.  

Not sure where to direct a question or comment? Call Brenda. If you have a city tree branch that’s fallen in your yard and you’re not sure what to do with it, call Brenda. If there’s an issue you want the city to examine, and you’re not sure who to tell, call Brenda. 

Brenda can provide residents: 

  • support navigating city departments and procedures
  • grants for neighborhood community-building projects
  • opportunities to participate in the public processes used to address city issues 

Pre-pandemic, Brenda used to hold monthly “office hours” where she’d invite residents to drop by a coffee shop to talk. It was an opportunity for her to distribute new information about the city but, more importantly, to listen to community concerns and answer questions. 

Now, she is providing her services remotely. To reach Brenda, call 303-441-1895, or email ritenourb@bouldercolorado.gov.

Other city resources

Translation: Most of the city’s informational materials are provided in English. For city council and there government meetings, translation is provided at meetings upon request or if the topic is particularly germane to Spanish-speaking residents. Boulder does have a Spanish hub webpage — still being built — and a Spanish Facebook page.

The communications team recently hired a language access specialist to help the Neighborhood Liaison connect with Boulder’s Spanish-speaking residents. Per the city’s communication department, more language resources are coming soon. 

To request an interpreter for any city meeting or city-sponsored engagement event, contact the Language Respect Line at 303-441-1905 or  sifuentesm@bouldercolorado.gov.

MediationBoulder employs a Community Mediation Services team for help navigating disputes between neighbors or property owners and tenants. Services are provided free of charge. 

Contact: 303-441-4364, or email mediation@bouldercolorado.gov

Contacting council

City council and the city manager are also responsible for communicating with constituents. 

Emails and phone numbers for city council members are found on the city’s website: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/mayor-and-city-council 

To reach the city manager’s office, directly email a staff member in the office, or call the main office number: 303-441-3090.

Hotline

Council and staff also post correspondence through the Boulder Council “Hotline.” The hotline is like a message board where council members and city staff can request items to be included on meeting agendas, express opinions on ongoing discussion topics, and more. 

The public is allowed to receive and read all these messages, but cannot add their own. Sign up here: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/the-boulder-council-hotline

Emailing council

All correspondence with the city is public record. Emails to council from residents are posted online daily, compiled into one (hard-to-read) file: bouldercolorado.gov/open-data/emails-to-boulder-city-council/

Emails sent to council@bouldercolorado.gov are funneled into a centralized inbox, and then distributed to the personal inboxes of all nine council members, the city manager, the city attorney, a number of department directors and 30-40 staff members. 

Council receives about 18,000 emails a year. That makes it difficult to respond to each email and individual concern in a timely manner, so it’s common for city staff to aid in responding to certain emails — typically the ones that seek clarification on policies or ongoing projects. Staff will not respond if it’s a question or comment related to an elected official’s political expression.

How to speak at council meetings

City council meetings are currently virtual. As of September, meetings will stay virtual at least through the rest of 2020 and likely into 2021.

Public participation is allowed at most council meetings, but not all. Meetings that are designated as study sessions or special sessions are open to the public, but do not feature a public comment period. Study sessions are designed for the council to do a deep dive into a given topic — no votes are taken. 

Regular city council meetings are held the first and third Tuesdays of the month. There are two opportunities for public participation: during open comment and public hearings, which usually happen before council votes on new policy or changes to city code. 

Open comment vs. public hearings: What’s the difference?

Open comment happens at the beginning of every regular council meeting. Twenty people are given the opportunity to speak, two minutes each. 

When more than 20 request speaking time, the clerk’s office randomizes who is given time. If there are fewer than 15 speakers, they each get 3 minutes. 

To speak during open comment, register online at the city’s website: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/participate-in-city-council-meetings

Sign-up begins at 6 p.m. the day the meeting agenda is published (usually the preceding Thursday), and ends at 2 p.m. Mondays. A list of who is speaking gets posted online by 6 p.m. Mondays, found at the ‘Council Documents’ webpage: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/council-documents.

Public hearings happen before city council votes on new policies, and they’re scheduled into council meetings on an as-needed basis. These hearings are noted in the meeting agendas, and anyone can sign up to speak about the policy at hand. 

Registration begins at 6 p.m. on the Thursday before the meeting and ends at 5 p.m. the day of the meeting, also via the city’s website: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/participate-in-city-council-meetings

Everyone who registers is allowed to speak and given three minutes. If speakers wish to “pool” time, two residents can donate their speaking time to a third, who will then have 5 minutes to speak.

Where are meetings/agendas posted?

City staff create the agenda. The mayor, mayor pro tem and rotating member of council — who together make up the council agenda committee, or CAC — review agendas every week on Monday mornings. CAC meetings are also open to the public. To attend, email the clerk’s office at cityclerkstaff@bouldercolorado.gov to request an online link.

Meeting schedules and meeting agendas are posted on the city’s website: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council.

Meeting agendas are published the Thursday before each meeting, and they contain a list of information and additional background reading materials pertinent to topics that will be discussed at a given meeting. 

Making sense of meetings

The agenda is broken into a workflow that previews (approximately) when and what topics will be discussed at a meeting. A typical workflow for a regular meeting looks like this:

  • Call to Order
  • Roll Call
  • Local, current event updates and/or commemorations
  • Open comment 
  • Consent agenda
  • Public hearings
  • Matter from the city manager, city attorney and/or members of council
  • Matters for discussion
  • Debrief
  • Adjournment

Sometimes these items are re-ordered, but typically the quicker-action items happen at the beginning, before council jumps into the meatier bits of planned discussion and updates on projects or legislation in the works.  

What’s a consent agenda?

Consent agendas are used to streamline a meeting’s procedure, and it allows for routine and non-controversial agenda items — like approving a prior meeting’s minutes, staff appointments, or informational reports that don’t require action — to be grouped together. Council can pass the whole group of items in a singular motion, rather than by going through each individually. 

A vote by any other name

Votes are sometimes required to move legislation, discussions, or projects forward. Whenever an ordinance is being passed or adopted, a roll call vote must be taken. During a study session, general nods or a thumbs-up can suffice as affirmation for next-steps in terms of research or future discussion topics.

Why “Matters” matter

Toward the end of a council meeting comes time for “Matters from…” the city manager, city attorney, mayor and council members. These are standing opportunities for people in these positions to present updates or matters of interest from their domains — ongoing projects such as COVID response efforts, position vacancies, etc.

Public hearings are sometimes held under matters, if council is taking an official vote. These public hearings are not typically noted on council agendas, nor are links to speak at them posted online for virtual meetings. This had led to concerns from elected officials and community members about a lack of transparency.

Council is now working to refine rules for public participation in such hearings.

How to watch

Every city council meeting is recorded and can be viewed live online via Channel 8 — also responsible for the TV broadcast — or on the city’s YouTube channel.  Past meetings can be found on YouTube: youtube.com/c/CityofBoulderGov/featured

To see recorded meeting videos edited down to certain topics of discussion, visit the city’s agenda webpage and click on the “Online Agenda” icon for a given meeting: bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/city-council-agendas-and-materials.

Board and commission meetings

All boards and commissions are required to have monthly meetings that the community can attend and, if desired, comment on topics related to what’s outlined in a meeting’s agenda. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the city is allowing all board and commission meetings to happen remotely, online through at least the end of the year.

How to watch and/or participate

Participation in open comment varies board to board, commission to commission. To find specifics on how to participate, meeting dates, times, and agendas, visit a board or commission’s unique webpage: bouldercolorado.gov/boards-commissions 

During COVID, most boards and commissions have a permanent link on their webpage that’s updated 24 hours before each meeting, and anyone can click the link to observe the meeting. Some boards — especially ones that see high participation rates during open comment periods, such as Planning Board — require people to request access to the meeting’s video conference via email or phone. 

For all meetings, participation procedures vary — at some you can simply raise your hand during open comment periods, but at others, you must notify the board/commission via email or by phone beforehand to make a comment. (Contact info included on the webpages.)

Pre-pandemic, some meetings — like those for Open Space Board of Trustees and Planning Board — were broadcast live via Boulder 8 TV (or on Comcast in high definition on channel 880 and in standard definition on channel 8.) Here’s the online TV link: bouldercolorado.gov/boulder8

Additional recordings from past meetings are found on the city’s YouTube channel, grouped in playlists by board/commission: youtube.com/c/CityofBoulderGov/playlists

Some boards and commissions record meetings for replay via video, but all at least keep audio recordings, and you can typically find the recordings on the unique webpage.

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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