Council is listening, but to whom?

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Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

At this point, I actually feel a bit sorry for the members of Boulder’s City Council. In the last few months they have managed to anger just about everyone for one reason or another. Whether its development or rightsizing, municipalization miscues, nutty decisions on historical preservation or their continued support for the city’s discriminatory policies aimed at pushing the homeless out of sight, pretty much everyone has expressed some level of displeasure with this crew. And while the community’s grumblings spring from a variety of issues, the central complaint is nearly always the same: “this Council just doesn’t listen.”

While that accusation may have some merit, I don’t think it’s this Council’s biggest problem. When most people complain that council isn’t listening, what they are really saying is council isn’t doing what I want them to do.

For the record, I’m not one of those folks who wrongly believe that after we elect someone to office, council or otherwise, their only duty is to hold their finger in the wind and vote for the majority position no matter how misinformed that majority may be. Nope, we live in a representative democracy wherein council members are supposed to inform themselves on an issue and then vote for what they believe is in the best interest of the community. And I honestly believe that the members of this Council try to do just that.

The problem isn’t that the Council doesn’t listen. The problem is to whom the Council is listening, which appears to be mostly to each other and city staff who have a vested interest in telling their bosses’ bosses what they want to hear. Unfortunately, relying on such a small, incestuous pool of feedback can make for some pretty goofy decisions freed from the bounds of common sense.

Take municipalization for instance. Council was told repeatedly by staff that Xcel didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to using the courts or regulatory agencies to stop Boulder’s quest to create a municipal electric utility. This paper warned repeatedly that the road to municipalization would be fraught with unforeseen difficulties due to Xcel’s considerable legal expertise, its nearly unlimited budget to fight and its significant political influence over the regulatory agencies. I seem to recall folks in the city attorney’s office laughing off such warnings. At least they laughed until the city started losing every legal and regulatory challenge Xcel threw its way.

BW still supports municipalization, but from where we sit, this Council has been repeatedly surprised by bad news because it is constantly working from poor advice that is routinely overoptimistic and overly simplistic because staff tells Council what Council wants to hear. As a result, Council feels justified in shutting out the voices of those critical of its actions on any number of aspects of this complex issue. Sticking your fingers in your ears so you can’t hear what someone has to say is rarely a recipe for proper decision-making.

And what about “right-sizing?” What’s that? It worked in Amsterdam. The Pope thinks it’s a good idea? I won’t spend my space here describing the lack of research and common sense that went into this recent Council decision; you can read about this fiasco on page 16 of this issue. I’ll just say it’s a good example of listening in all the wrong places.

And here’s another great example of what can happen to a council that allows staff to drown out the voice of the people. Anyone who has followed the issue of the historic Glen Huntington Bandshell in Central Park knows that a good portion of this Council wants to see it moved from it current location, which is prime real estate for those elected officials who see themselves as the lone architects of Boulder’s future identity.

In an effort to appear to be listening to public input, an online survey was set up by the city, which asked people where they wanted the Bandshell to be located. According to press reports, almost two-thirds of respondents told the city that they wanted the Bandshell left right where it is. Pretty simple to interpret those findings, right? Not in Boulder, not these days.

When asked about the survey’s results, Jeff Haley, Boulder’s planning manager over the Civic Area that includes Central Park, told the Daily Camera, “We are taking that [survey results] to mean it should stay in its current location or somewhere in the civic area.”

What? No. It means that the vast majority of people want the Bandshell to stay exactly where it is just like they said when they filled out the survey. They don’t want it to be moved somewhere else in the Civic Area. What a perfect example of only hearing what you want to hear.

So what will likely happen next? I can only assume that staff will provide guidance to Council that says something along the lines of “the people of Boulder will be happy so long as the Bandshell is located anywhere in the Civic Area.” And at that point, Council will vote to move the Bandshell, all the while being shocked by the sure-to-follow public outcry declaring City Council is deaf to the concerns and desires of the community it is supposed to be serving.

Representative democracy is a good thing, but when a city council becomes too insulated from public input and too dependent upon it’s own members passions and a staff that, not surprisingly, desires to provide guidance that it knows the council wants to hear, it can become the victim of this feedback loop. It’s like what happens to Republicans who only listen Fox News or Democrats addicted to the self-reinforcing slant of MSNBC. It makes you feel good. It can even make you believe you are informed. But in the end, it only serves to free you from the bounds of reality, at which point its likely you will start making very silly decisions … like “right-sizing,” moving bandshells or lobbying against laws that would give the homeless the right to simply rest.