Local Gov’t 101: Civilians in the City

By Emma Athena
For Boulder Beat

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

Boards and commissions 

Boards and commissions are regularly tasked with research and gathering community input to present to council before a policy decision. The idea is to help elected officials make decisions that reflect contemporary best-practices and community interests.

Boards and commissions are organized around a department or topic. Members must be city residents and 18 years or older. An exception is made for some out-of-city residents: if they’ve lived in Boulder for at least a year in the past, and still own property here, then they can serve on a board or commission from afar. 

Meetings mirror the same formality of city council — using Robert’s Rules of Order, unless the board or commission adopts other rules of meeting procedure. Unlike council members, board and commission members aren’t paid. 

In Boulder, there are 23 boards and commissions:

What’s the difference between a board and commission?

There is no difference. In Boulder’s charter, the requirements outlined for boards and commissions are identical. 

Beyond boards and commissions, there also exist “authorities” and “associations.” Typically, authorities have a quasi-judicial role in the government, which comes with enforcement powers — like the Beverage Licensing Authority’s ability to suspend liquor licenses, or the execution of eviction in the case of Boulder Housing Partners. 

Associations are generally community groups that the city wants represented in policy discussions.

Which boards have legislative power?

No boards or commissions have legislative power: Legislative authority falls solely within city council. Most boards and commissions are advisory in nature — city council is not obligated to follow their advice and can deviate from any policy recommendations.

The Planning Board, however, has some quasi-judicial powers, meaning decisions from this board — mostly about how to use land in the city — are final unless “called up” (reviewed) by council. Also, the Open Space Board of Trustees and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board play judicial roles: they must formally recommend the disposal or acquisition of open space and/or park lands before council can approve such an action. 

And, as previously mentioned, authorities like the Beverage Licensing Authority and the newly formed Cannabis Licensing and Advisory Board have some decision-making power.

When do they meet?

By statute, boards and commissions are required to meet at least once per month. Most are recurring days (i.e. the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meets the fourth Monday of the month).

Meeting schedules are found on each board/commission web page, on the city’s website: bouldercolorado.gov/boards-commissions. All meetings and transaction records are public. 

Agendas can also be found on the city website and must be made available to the public at least 24 hours in advance. If a meeting is held virtually, links to join the virtual meeting will be posted online 24 hours in advance.  

How are board and commission members seated?

Council appoints the members of boards and commissions. Council also decides when a new board and/or commission needs to be created.

Some boards have term limits; all term limits are 5 years. There are shorter terms when a board is originally created, or when a board is expanded, with the intention to stagger terms. 

To fill vacancies, council appoints members via a hearing process that occurs each spring. Those interested in serving on a given board or commission must submit an application (see below); public interviews are conducted over two or three days by council members.

A few boards tie a number of seats to certain employment or community positions, so as to ensure a certain presence of expertise. The Design Advisory Board, for example, has one seat reserved for an architect, and the Landmarks Board requires two members who are either architectural or design planning professionals.

How to apply for boards and commissions

All seats must be filled by April, so the application process typically begins early in the first quarter of the year. A written application is first submitted, then group interviews are conducted in March.

The application portal is found on the city’s website. From there, interested applicants can view which seats will need to be filled, as well as glean more information about any particular requirements a board or commission may require.

Working groups 

There are several names for this governmental tool: working group, advisory group, stakeholder group, community collaboration group. Their role is to temporarily, deeply engage the community on a specific project or policy decision. 

How are they activated?

There aren’t official guidelines on when a working group should be activated. Often, they are convened when city staff believe a particularly wide variety of perspectives need to inform a project or policy decision.

Typically, working groups are populated with 9 to 21 people from diverse backgrounds and with varying opinions. How often a given working group meets is determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the scope of the projects at hand. Most working groups advise city staff, and city staff then relays working group information to city council. 

How many are there?

As working groups are used on a project-by-project basis, the number of working groups varies. Information on active working groups can be found… nowhere. Contact the neighborhood liaison (see Public Participation), council members, or the city manager for information.

How do they differ from boards/commissions?

Working groups differ from boards and commissions in three major ways: working groups are temporary, seated by city staff rather than council, and do not directly advise the elected officials. 

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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