Aaron Brockett, city mayor, watched the election results come in at the Ash'Kara restaurant in downtown Boulder on Nov. 2, 2021. Credit: John Herrick

Boulder’s mayor maintains a low profile. 

The mayor often bears no title beside their name. They earn just as much as their fellow council members. They’re not elected by voters — at least not yet.

The so-called leader among equals keeps meetings running on time, builds consensus and represents the city across the region, state and country. 

But in 2021, representing the city is easier said than done. 

During the last election, police broke up petitioners. Campaigns filed complaints against each other. One city council candidate took organizers to court

After the dust settled, a new Boulder City Council was sworn in, shifting a longstanding balance of power in city government. The new council is likely to pursue policy changes that for decades stood no chance, including lifting city occupancy limits and allowing people experiencing homelessness to sleep outside legally in certain places. 

Aaron Brockett, a two-term councilman who was appointed mayor in November by his colleagues on the council, promised to represent the entire city after what he describes as a “landmark” election. 

“I will listen to all voices in our community, regardless of their wealth, station, background, or life circumstance,” Brockett wrote in an email to the City Council listserv when he announced his bid for mayor. 

The software developer first moved to Boulder’s Holiday Neighborhood in 2003, where he helped build a community garden and lead group meetings as a member of the Wild Sage cohousing community. In 2011, he joined the Planning Board, where he served until 2015. That year, he was elected to the City Council. 

The Boulder Reporting Lab wanted to get a better sense of how Brockett is thinking about this new role, and how he plans to build bridges in bridge-burning times. 

Why did you want this job? 

I feel like I have a decent sense of how the city works and what the issues are, and there are things we can do better. Boulder has an important role in the Denver Metro region, in the state and beyond. I felt like I could represent Boulder’s values and interests well in those regional conversations. 

What are those values and interests? 

At the regional level, it’s related to sustainability. So moving towards a regional transportation system more focused on transit and people-powered transportation, and away from single-occupancy vehicles. Also, in terms of using renewable energy, seeing how we can work with other cities around the region on pushing forward to as high of a percentage of renewable energy on the grid as possible. All the different municipalities and counties can do better when we collaborate on common problems. 

What kind of changes do you want to see to the City Council job itself? 

For folks who are working a day job, one of the challenges is [the meetings] are Tuesday night. They go on a long time, and you’re exhausted the next day. [We should] keep the meetings to a more manageable length, and look at whether we can have meetings on a Thursday night. This is also about making things more manageable for staff members. We’ve seen a lot of turnover in city staff positions. 

Another goal is to have more council members from different perspectives serve and to stay longer. I won’t claim reshuffling the schedule will solve all that. But it’s a step.

One challenge is the relatively low pay, which is around $11,000 a year. There’s interest in having a commission look at that issue and maybe recommend changes so folks who have a lower income might find it more manageable to serve. 

In your announcement, you mentioned you want to center equity and inclusion in your work. What do you mean by that? 

It’s working to make sure voices aren’t heard as often have a chance to make themselves heard — so you’re not just paying attention to the people who’ve been working on city issues for decades, but trying to listen to all voices in the community.

[For example], in the [open space] master plan process, we had people out at the supermarket, we had outreach in Spanish, we checked in with folks experiencing homelessness. What we found was that when we had really broad outreach, there was less fighting over the details and more of an opportunity to get to [the community’s] core values around the open space system. 

Racial equity is one of the things we’ve been working on in the city for a couple years. We passed our first racial equity plan in the last year. 

How do you ensure racial equity in the city’s work? 

I won’t claim to have all the answers. I’ll give an example. In the early part of the pandemic, city finances were hit very, very hard. And the city had the difficult challenge of laying off and furloughing dozens and dozens of its employees. But the city, in coming up with its plans for how to lay off and furlough people, analyzed what the workforce would look like after those proposed changes were made, versus before. It found if [the cuts] were done as proposed, the racial diversity of the workforce would actually tick up very slightly. It was just checking to make sure those potential implicit and structural biases didn’t end up getting expressed in the layoff plans.

When nominating you for mayor, City Council Member Rachel Friend said you would bring “kindness” to your decisions. What does that mean to you? 

It’s not niceness —  [which] is always saying something friendly, no matter the circumstance. Sometimes you have to have difficult conversations, disagreements and conflicts with people. But ideally, you’re going to bring compassion to those conversations, and empathy. And so even when there’s a difficult issue or disagreement on the council or in the community you can let folks know their voices are heard. 

Unfortunately, the public discourse in our society has gotten more and more negative. People become more polarized. People are often ascribing really negative motives to people who disagree with them. My approach would be to generally assume people are trying to make the world a better place. Someone who disagrees with you is not a bad person. We may not end up agreeing at the end of the day, but we can have a civil discussion on issues [without] demonizing.

How do you reconcile bringing people together after voters elected a City Council many say is the most “progressive” in decades? 

When I talk about bringing people together, that’s about having productive and civil discussions. That doesn’t mean you’re going to end up agreeing 100%. That doesn’t mean you don’t pass a policy unless everyone agrees. Any significant actions the new council works on should be done through an open and public process. But this council has some energy to probably enact some policies that are at least somewhat different. And I look forward to that. I think it’s important for the new folks who are elected by the voters to steer a somewhat different course from the path before.

What are some of those policies you want to change over the next year? 

Making accessory dwelling units easier to create in town. I’m proud of the co-op ordinance we passed a few years ago, but some of the hurdles for creating and maintaining [co-ops] are too high. 

We have opportunities for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods along some of our transit corridors we’re not fully taking advantage of — like in the east Arapaho Plan. We’re working on bus rapid transit right now between Boulder and Longmont. Before too long, hopefully, we’re going to have high-frequency buses running along 28th Street, bringing folks from as far away as Longmont into Boulder. 

Another major topic is services for folks experiencing homelessness. We have a successful housing-first program. But we’re missing assistance options for folks who we’re not able to house either right now or in the medium term. We’re lacking daytime options where people can get out of the cold and also get connected to services, check email [and] get a shower.  We could use some kind of daytime navigation center.

What about the camping ban? 

I don’t think we should allow camping in any public space. But we need to provide additional options. I would look to the model of the safe outdoor spaces in Denver, which have been implemented over the last couple of years. They’re set up with heavy-duty tents, with heating, with bathrooms, with some ground rules and services, to help people figure out what their next step is. It gives them a way to get out of the cold and have an interim housing or living option while something more permanent is figured out. 

What changes would you want to see to the city’s occupancy limits? 

I supported the Bedrooms initiative [also known as Question 300]. It didn’t pass. So I don’t think we should try to enact it legislatively. But occupancy limit reform is an important discussion to have, because [sharing costs] is one of the ways housing can be more affordable for folks. We should work with the community on figuring out what changes could be made on this to increase housing accessibility and affordability. 

Most people don’t know how many bedrooms or homes would be affected by occupancy changes. How do you plan to inject this conversation with more data or some kind of basic, agreed upon understanding of the situation? 

One of the benefits of doing this as a work plan item for the council is we can get hard data. I don’t think it’s going to mean everybody agrees on the right way to work with that data. If we take this up, it’ll be a controversial topic. There’s no outcome we can land on everybody’s going to agree with. But I do think we want to hear the voices in the community. We should center our analysis on how we can help people who are struggling in our community, and then hopefully come up with some reforms. 

You cut the ribbon to Strade Bianche, the Tuscan restaurant that has since closed. If you could go out to dinner tonight, where would you go? 

I’m actually meeting our former mayor, Sam Weaver, in just a couple hours for an appetizer at Santo, the New Mexican restaurant. I always enjoy a good taco from there.

John Herrick is senior reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness. Email: john@boulderreportinglab.org.