Boulder City Hall on Dec. 9, 2021. A majority on the Boulder City Council is considering adding another emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Credit: John Herrick

Judy Nogg, a 74-year-old Boulder resident, has been involved in some of the city’s thorniest political debates. 

She once fought a proposed North Boulder housing development that she said didn’t create enough affordable housing. And she served on the city’s Housing Advisory Board when it took up the issue of sanctioned encampments for the city’s unhoused residents. 

She’s heard a lot of shouting, she said. But she believes people also have far more in common than not. 

“It’s not the people,” she said. “It’s the process.” 

So in January, she helped organize a group called Dialogue Boulder to explore changes to how the city gathers feedback from residents to make policy decisions. She rounded up about a dozen people, several of whom were running opposing campaigns in the 2021 city election, and started hosting Zoom meetings every two weeks. 

Members threw out ideas. Those with consensus were added to a list. And on Wednesday, the group sent that list of more than 30 recommendations to City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde and the members of the Boulder City Council. 

In general, the recommendations seek to give the public more opportunities to chime in on policy debates. The suggestions also seek to reduce the workload of city staff and City Council members by giving more responsibility to the city’s 20 boards and commissions, which are run by volunteers appointed by the City Council to discuss issues ranging from city open space to the arts. 

To increase public participation in board and commission meetings, the group suggested the city record the meetings, post meeting minutes online, and pilot new forms of public engagement such as circle talks. The group also recommended assigning a city employee to the boards and commissions to help with public engagement and create a “public process advisory group.”

Dialogue Boulder also suggested city staff then take and summarize the feedback from the public when making policy recommendations to City Council.

The idea behind the changes, members said, is to make sure residents have the opportunity to engage before issues come up for a vote.

“Everything ends up being a final showdown at City Council and citizens feel frustrated,” said Peter Mayer, the chair of PLAN-Boulder County who participated in the group.  

Many Dialogue Boulder members are on opposing sides of the city’s political spectrum. And many agree the group was politically diverse.

In addition to Mayer and Nogg, the Dialogue Boulder members include: 

  • Jan Burton, former City Council member and chair of the Coalition, an unofficial candidate committee backing candidates for Boulder City Council
  • Bruce Borowsky, co-founder of Boulder Digital Arts and former member of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce
  • Kurt Nordback, software engineer and supporter of the Bedrooms Are For People political campaign
  • Stan Deetz, former member of the Human Relations Commissions
  • Lisa Spalding, PLAN-Boulder County board member
  • John Gerstle, former chair of the city Planning Board until he was ousted from the role by the City Council
  • David Takahashi, climate activist who ran for City Council this year
  • Karen Hollweg, member of the Open Space Board of Trustees
  • John Tayer, president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce
  • Margaret LeCompte, treasurer for PLAN’s Save CU South campaign
  • Bill Sweeney, longtime advocate for homelessness services

The group discussed some ideas that didn’t stick, including increasing the pay for City Council members to enable more people from different socioeconomic backgrounds to serve. And when conversations became partisan, one of the members was tasked with interjecting.

Some members disagreed over how long the list of suggestions should be and how much the city could realistically achieve. Some ideas would cost money, including paying for child care so more people could participate on boards and commissions. Others would require more time, like having a city employee serve as a liaison to the boards and commissions, or requiring City Council members to host office hours. 

Several City Council members support some of the proposed changes. So do city officials. Sarah Huntley, a spokesperson for the city, said the city has met with members of Dialogue Boulder and is in the process of determining which of its ideas can be implemented quickly without approval from the City Council. For those requiring the council’s approval, she said the goal is to tee up conversations in the first half of 2022.

In the meantime, it’s unclear what will become of the group. If the Zoom meetings cease and the city ignores the recommendations, members agree it wouldn’t be all for nought. Several said it could help subdue some of the city’s political polarization. 

“You learn people aren’t real ogres,” Jan Burton, a former City Council member, said. “We have a lot more agreement than we think. It’s just that we never talk.”

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.