The Boulder City Council on Thursday voted 6-3 to seat a new 11-member Police Oversight Panel, a volunteer-led group that oversees investigations into complaints of officer misconduct. The approval followed weeks of delays after some community members, including city police officers, sought to block the appointment of one candidate who has been outspoken in her support for police reform.
The postponed vote has taken time away from training the new members, who are scheduled to meet on Feb. 8, for a job that has seen demanding work hours and high turnover.
Throughout the drawn-out and highly politicized process, two applicants withdrew their candidacies. The fight in recent weeks prompted several councilmembers to double down on their vows to revise the 2020 ordinance that created the panel — including changes to make them less involved in future appointments.
Much of the debate in recent weeks has centered around a provision in the ordinance that says panel members must demonstrate “an absence of any real or perceived bias, prejudice or conflict of interest.” A selection committee set up to nominate candidates for council approval evaluated them on a range of factors, such as bias, lived experience and an “awareness of the covert and overt racism in the context of policing or over policing,” according to a recent city staff memo.
The candidate who has drawn the most scrutiny from these community members is Lisa Sweeney-Miran, the executive director of Mother House, a homeless shelter, and plaintiff in a lawsuit against the police chief. The suit seeks to overturn the city’s camping ban, which makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep outside in public spaces.
John Neslage, a corporate lawyer from Boulder who has said a man masturbated in front of his daughter at the Boulder Public Library, alleged in a formal complaint that the selection committee violated city code when it nominated Sweeney-Miran. Neslage and other residents concerned about crime have been filling seats at City Hall in recent weeks calling on councilmembers to vote against the slate of candidates.
During a special meeting on Thursday, held virtually, a majority of councilmembers approved the list of six candidates despite the investigation. Mayor Aaron Brockett and Councilmembers Junie Joseph, Rachel Friend, Matt Benjamin, Lauren Folkerts and Nicole Speer voted to approve nominees.
“It’s not biased to include people on the Police Oversight Panel who understand the fact that all of our systems, including policing (not just policing), are biased against Black and brown people, queer and trans people, poor people and people with disabilities,” Speer said. “A tenet of inclusive leadership and equitable governance is to welcome criticism of systems that have disproportionate impacts on marginalized members of our community, not to try to stifle it.”
Friend said she wished the word “bias” was not in the ordinance. “I will move to strike it when we revise this ordinance,” she said. “We all have biases. That can be okay as long as that bias does not interfere with us performing impartially.” She said the public battle over the appointment has taken a toll on the community. Friend said future appointments should not come back before the city council. “We should prioritize our limited time on legislative and policy work.”
Benjamin referred to the recent debate as a “stress test” for the ordinance and the Police Oversight Panel. He said when the city hires a new independent police monitor, he wants that person to recommend reforms as soon as possible. “There are some fractures in the foundation of what we’re working on here. It means the ordinance itself needs some fixing,” he said.
Joseph said the process has been demoralizing and could affect the work of the panel. “I really do believe this whole process will have a chilling effect” on panel members, she said. “Either this body is independent or it is not. I think over the last few months, the way we’ve engaged in this selection process shows that it is not independent.”
Folkerts said it is not the job of councilmembers to determine whether panelists are for or against the police. “My job is to determine if they are expressing an unfair or unreasonable feeling,” she said. She said the candidates have not.
Brockett said he has had some sleepless nights thinking about the appointments. “An advisory panel needs a variety of opinions on it. And I think it is fine for some of those opinions to be strong, as long as the panelists can be impartial,” he said. He said the city council should prioritize revisions to the ordinance. “In the meantime, though, the panel needs to function. It has important work to do,” he said.
Those voting against the slate of nominees were Bob Yates, Mark Wallach and Tara Winer. All appeared to be reading pre-written statements explaining their vote, a sign of the awkwardness of standing against the NAACP of Boulder County, a civil rights organization that helped nominate the candidates.
Wallach voted against the nomination over concerns of bias. He said it seems as though the selection committee sought to maximize “anti-police orientation” of the panel. He said this will have the effect of diminishing its credibility. He offered an analogy: “We would never appoint someone to the Open Space Board of Trustees whose stated view was to pave over and sell off our open space.”
Winer said she is voting no in part because she wanted to fix the ordinance before voting for the new candidates. She said the city council needs more clarity on what “bias” means. Also, she said deliberations of the selection committee should not be confidential, as is required under city code. “It would add transparency to this process,” she said. “We need to take the time to fix this ahead of time.”
Yates said city code requires that the panelist demonstrate an absence of bias. He said community members have provided evidence of a bias among some of the nominees. “The process appears to have failed,” he said.
The new members are:
- Maria Soledad-Diaz, the shelter program director at Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN);
- Madelyn Strong Woodley, one of the members of the task force that helped create the Police Oversight Panel and member of the NAACP of Boulder County;
- Sam Zhang, a Ph.D student of applied mathematics at CU Boulder and treasurer for the Communications Workers of America Local 7799;
- Sweeney-Miran, the executive director of Mother House and vice president of the Boulder Valley School District board of directors;
- Mylene Vialard, a translator; and
- Jason Savela, a criminal defense lawyer for a Boulder-based private firm.
They will join Daniel Leonard, the current co-chair and a communications specialist at CU Boulder; Victor King, a recovery coach manager at Mental Health Partners; Hadasa Villalobos, a quality supervisor for a local food manufacturer; Bwembya Chikolwa, a manger at a telecommunications company; and Sarah Holt, of Longmont.
Ahead of the vote, the council also appointed a special council to investigate Neslage’s complaint alleging the selection committee violated city code. According to City Attorney Teresa Tate, under city code, the city council is required to appoint either the city attorney or special council to investigate the complaint. Tate suggested appointing outside counsel given that she might have a conflict of interest.
Leading the investigation will be Clay Douglas, a former city attorney for Longmont and Loveland and a municipal law consultant. (Douglas has announced his retirement several times.) He appeared at the virtual city council meeting but declined to issue a statement when given the floor.
“On the rare occasion,” Douglas said, “I’m going to let the lawyer be quiet.”
Eliminate the terms “bias” and “perception of bias” from the code and replace with “demonstrated ability to impartially consider”, etc., presto, code fixed and you can leave it to the politics.
How disappointing that the “progressives” on this Council have approved a slate that includes aggressive bias against cops! Obviously, the panel lacks credibility. The NAACP shouldn’t be deciding on City business. Another failure to support our police force.
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