Local Gov’t 101: Who’s in Charge?

By Emma Athena
For Boulder Beat

Other Gov’t 101 stories:
Civilian roles
Direct democracy
Public participation
Who to call
Glossary

What is the structure of the government?

The City of Boulder has a “council-manager” form of government, wherein elected city council members work with an appointed city manager. Council members determine the policy; the manager implements it. 

The city manager is appointed by council and is in charge of operating the city’s ongoing services and implementing any changes determined by elected officials.

What does the city manager do?

Like the conductor of a massive orchestra, the city manager directs all of Boulder’s operations. 

A significant part of the job is ensuring ongoing government services run smoothly and properly. Many things need to be done on a daily basis for Boulderites to live safe, modern lives: drinking water needs to be purified, parks must be maintained, downtown parking must be monitored, and much, much more. 

The city manager supervises the work of city departments (see more below) and builds relationships between city staff, businesses, nonprofits and other community groups. They’re often a go-to person for answering questions from elected officials and everyday citizens. 

Most of the city manager’s day-to-day decisions are made without specific council input. The city manager is only required to consult the city council in a couple of instances:

  • When new policies are being implemented
  • If a financial issue arises greater in value than $10,000
  • If a new lease needs signing and its for longer than three years 

In those cases, the city manager must present a plan of action for council’s approval. If there’s an atypical issue with a core service (utilities, policing, etc.), the city manager might also invite council members to help resolve it. 

Two deputy managers and an assistant manager help with these tasks.

Who hires who? 

City council appoints the city manager and two other city employees: the city attorney and the municipal judge. All city staff report to either the manager, attorney or municipal judge. These three employees report to the city council. 

It’s been more than a decade since one of these three positions has been up for appointment. City manager Jane Brautigam, who has served since 2008 and is the first woman to hold the position, retired at the end of October 2020. She is the longest serving city manager in modern Boulder history.

To replace Brautigam, a city council subcommittee was established to write the job description, conduct a nationwide search and vet prospective candidates with help from the human resources department and other city staff. Council will interview prospective candidates, which will include some degree of public participation, likely as Q&A sessions where potential candidates will “meet and greet” Boulderites.

The interim city manager is Chris Meschuk.

Role of the city attorney:

  • Provides legal services and oversees records management for the city
  • Legal advisor to city council and city staff, plus boards and commissions
  • Represents the city’s interests in civil litigation
  • Prosecutes violations of municipal code, such as off-leash dogs, brawling, or open containers of alcohol

Staff: 15 attorneys (city attorney, chief deputy city attorney, two deputy city attorneys, two senior counsel, six staff attorneys and three prosecutors) plus four paralegals, five legal secretaries and the office administrator 

Current city attorney: Tom Carr
Since 2010
Previously: Seattle, Washington, as city attorney for nine years

Role of the municipal judge:

  • Supervises municipal court proceedings, including daily hearings for ordinance-violation tickets, probation, and warrants
  • Presides over pre-trial hearings, small claims proceedings, and misdemeanor cases
  • Responsible for awareness of modern legal precedent, which often requires research, case reviews, and occasional opinion writing

Current municipal judge: Linda Cooke
Since 2002
Previously: Associate judge at the court and practicing appellate law

What is a municipal court?

A court of law with jurisdiction limited to a city or other municipality (in this case, the city of Boulder). It typically addresses “violations of city ordinances and may also have jurisdiction over minor criminal cases…and over certain civil cases.” (Shoutout to the Dictionary of Legal Terms, 5th edition, for the definition.)

City council: Who, what, when

There are nine city council members. All nine serve “at large,” meaning they each represent all Boulder residents. This differs from other cities, where council members may only represent certain districts or neighborhoods. 

Terms

City council members serve four- or two-year terms, depending on how many votes they get. Every other year, five seats are up for election (barring any unexpected vacancies that need filling). The four candidates that receive the highest number of votes are elected to four-year terms, and the candidate with the fifth-highest number of votes is elected to a two-year term. 

Council members can serve three terms in a lifetime.

Pay

Each is paid $234.71 per meeting (this is the 2020 rate; it’s adjusted annually for inflation) with a maximum of 52 meetings per year. Most are employed elsewhere in the community or are retired. 

Mayor and mayor pro-tem

Every two years, council members vote amongst themselves for someone to serve as mayor. Once a year, they pick a new mayor pro-tem, who fills in for the mayor should they miss a council meeting or event. 

This will change beginning in 2023, when Boulderites will elect their own mayor using instant runoff voting, as approved by voters in November 2020.

Neither the mayor nor the mayor pro tem have special legislative or governance powers, although they do have special roles and responsibilities. They help run council meetings and weekly agenda-setting meetings, often give public interviews, and regularly act as Boulder’s representative in state, regional or national groups.

Boulder’s city council right now

Learn more about current members: terms, endorsements, campaign promises and priorities

Department directors, where do they fit in?

There are 19 departments tasked with facilitating city operations. Some departments directly serve constituents; others serve internal government purposes. Department heads are (usually) called directors; most are hired by selection committees, but the city manager ultimately has the final say with each position.

Externally facing departments, or those that interact with and directly serve the public:

  • Community Vitality
  • Open Space and Mountain Parks
  • Library and Arts
  • Housing and Human Services
  • Planning and Development
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Public Works for Utilities
  • Transportation and Mobility
  • Fire Rescue
  • Police

Internally facing departments, or those that primarily respond to or support city staff:

  • Finance
  • Innovation and Technology
  • Municipal Court
  • Human Resources
  • Facilities and fleet

Departments that face both externally and internally:

  • Climate Initiatives
  • Communication and Engagement
  • City Attorney’s Office
  • City Manager’s Office

Climate Initiatives
Plans and implements city sustainability strategies and Boulder’s resilience to climate change
Director: Steve Catanach
2021 full-time employees (FTE): 18

Communication and Engagement
Informs the community and city staff about local policies and programs, fields media inquiries, manages the city’s social media
Director: Sarah Huntley
2021 FTE: 17.75

Community Vitality
Builds relationships between the city and its businesses and nonprofits; manages parking downtown, on University Hill and in the Boulder Junction area
Director: Yvette Bowden (also doubles as the assistant city manager)
2021 FTE: 40.88

Housing and Human Services
Implements homelessness reduction and housing affordability strategies, in addition to facilitating landlord-tenant mediation services, food-share programs and the distribution of funds to a variety of supportive nonprofits
Director: Kurt Firnhaber
2021 FTE: 44.25

Open Space and Mountain Parks
Manages 45,000 acres of preserved and protected OSMP land, plus 155-mile trail system and the millions of annual visitors
Director: Dan Burke
2021 FTE: 126.35

Parks and Recreation
Maintains 1,800 acres of urban parks, three recreation centers, Pearl Street Mall, Boulder Reservoir, plus other outdoor amenities; also organizes sport leagues and outdoor youth opportunities
Director: Ali Rhodes
2021 FTE: 125.75

Planning and Development Services
Reviews zoning policies and land-use regulations, facilitates permitting and licensing for construction projects
Director: Jacob Lindsey
2021 FTE: 88.4

Public Works – Utilities
Manages water distribution and wastewater collection, ensures safe drinking water standards and compliance with use-efficiency goals, plans flood mitigation strategies
Director: Joe Taddeucci
2021 FTE: 168.19

Public Works – Transportation and Mobility
Maintains and enhances Boulder’s roadways, bikeways and pedestrian systems (repairing potholes, removing snow, rerouting traffic around construction projects)
Director: Erika Vandenbrande
2021 FTE: 77.02

Human Resources
Supports the city’s ~1,600 employees (leads continuing-education programs for city staff, aids departments searching for and hiring new employees, negotiates union contracts)
Director: Jen Sprinkle
2021 FTE: 22

Innovation and Technology
Supports all city employees and maintains the thousands of computing devices that allow the government to run smoothly as it communicates, collects and securely stores information
Chief IT Officer: Jennifer Douglas
2021 FTE: 39

Finance
Oversees the city’s budget, manages the city’s financial reporting, sales tax and treasury services.
Chief Financial Officer: Cheryl Pattelli
2021 FTE: 42

Fleet and Facilities
Ensures certain city facilities function as intended and are updated as needed: public libraries, a variety of parks, and any facilities funded by the city’s general fund; also manages equipment operations, replacements, and environmental improvements on city vehicles
Director: Joanna Crean, 303-441-4058
2021 FTE: 37.54

Fire Rescue
Addresses most of the city’s 911 calls and emergency situations
Fire Chief: Michael Calderazzo
2021 FTE: 122

Library and Arts
Oversees the operations of Boulder’s five library buildings and the myriad arts programming and grants
Director: David Farnan
2021 FTE: 68.75

Municipal Court
Oversees the court’s budget, directs some general court procedures and develops new technologies for the court
Administrator: James Cho
2021 FTE: 16.35

Police
Provides community safety, responds to 911 calls and emergency situations
Police Chief: Maris Herold
2021 FTE: 280.6

A “home-rule” city, what does that mean?

The city of Boulder is governed by “home rule,” which means Boulder’s city charter supersedes state law when pertaining to certain local matters. Of the 97 home-rule cities in Colorado, most have a council-manager form of government like Boulder. 

State law is the legal floor, so to speak: Boulder can go above and beyond what state law provides, but can’t do less than what the state mandates. 

For example, Boulder can regulate activities and protect the environment to a greater extent than what’s afforded to state, but it couldn’t do away with all regulations. When statewide interests or matters are in conflict with home-rule policies, then state law will supersede (like when Greeley, another home-rule city, tried to ban oil and gas development, and courts ruled that went against state interests). 

Boulder, county and city

Boulder County is one of 64 counties in Colorado. Boulder County includes 10 towns or cities, plus hundreds of acres of unincorporated land (not within a town or city’s boundaries). 

Boulder County is responsible for providing certain services to the city of Boulder, such as jails, cannabis regulation and some mass transit systems. State law also gives the county certain discretionary powers over the city, like wildfire planning and law enforcement. Occasionally, the city and county collaborate on regional topics, like Homeless Solutions for Boulder County and the Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership.

— 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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