Update: This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. on May 12 to include the findings from a code of conduct complaint filed against Councilmember Nicole Speer. The investigator concluded that it is “less likely than so” that Speer violated city code. The City Attorney’s Office has closed the case.
So far this year, more code of conduct complaints have been filed by Boulder residents than in all of the last decade combined, according to city records.
Some of these complaints raise complicated ethical questions while others are about procedural, permitting or even personal issues. Regardless of the nature of the complaints, there have been so many filed this year that some councilmembers worry the legal process, seldom used in the past, is being used for political reasons.
“It should never be that you can use the mechanism of governance and weaponize it to stop work or punish the people you don’t align with,” Councilmember Junie Joseph, who was named in a complaint, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “Politics is about conversations. It’s about using your words to convince people. It’s not about using processes to silence people.”
Some complaints, like the one against Joseph, have been dismissed. The consequences can be significant if they’re not, however. This year’s first code of conduct complaint resulted in the city council removing a member from the Police Oversight Panel.
More than half of the 10 complaints filed this year name individual councilmembers. Others name city officials, police officers, and the volunteers who served on the selection committee that nominated new members to the Police Oversight Panel.
In early April, Councilmember Bob Yates suggested that the City Attorney’s Office report back to councilmembers in June on whether it has the bandwidth to consider changes to the complaints system. At the time, Yates told Boulder Reporting Lab he was “raising a little bit of an alarm” over the volume of complaints. (Prior to this year, Yates, who was first elected in 2015, said he has seen one code of conduct filed against a councilmember.)
On April 28, about two weeks after that city council meeting, Yates was named in a complaint. It alleges he violated the city code by using residents’ emails for political purposes. Yates has since said “I believe those allegations to be false.” The city council has yet to appoint an investigator.
He said it’s important for residents to have an avenue to hold officials accountable for ethical and legal violations. But the current process may be broken, he said.
“I worry that this may have become a method to intimidate people, to scare people, to quiet people. And that is of concern,” Yates told Boulder Reporting Lab this week.
Many of the complaints have centered around hot-button political issues of policing, public safety and homelessness. These are issues likely to be front and center in the November 2023 election, when five seats, including city mayor, will be at stake.
Here’s a brief timeline and descriptions of the complaints.
Jan. 19, 2023 (Police Oversight Panel): The first complaint came from John Neslage, a corporate lawyer from Boulder who has said a man masturbated in front of his daughter at the Boulder Public Library. He alleged the selection committee set up to nominate members to the Police Oversight Panel violated city code by not considering the candidates’ bias. He cited a provision stating panel members must demonstrate an “absence of any real or perceived bias.” A special counsel later found his complaint “has merit” and recommended panel member Lisa Sweeney-Miran resign or be removed from the panel due to her bias against police. Earlier this month, the city council voted to remove her. She and her attorney have hinted they will sue the city.
Jan. 26, 2023 (Police Oversight Panel): The second complaint was filed by Zayd Atkinson, whose interaction with Boulder police officers in 2019 catalyzed the creation of the Police Oversight Panel. Atkinson alleged all members of the Boulder City Council did not “fulfill their required duties” when they delayed a vote on appointing six new panelists, among other allegations. The special counsel determined the complaint “did not have merit.”
Jan. 30, 2023 (Police Oversight Panel): After city council approved the slate of panel members, Emily Reynolds, a Boulder resident who has referred to members of the Police Oversight Panel as “cop haters,” filed a complaint alleging six city councilmembers violated city code when they approved the panelists. The six councilmembers were Mayor Aaron Brockett, Junie Joseph, Rachel Friend, Matt Benjamin, Lauren Folkerts and Nicole Speer. The special counsel found the complaint “has merit.”
Jan. 30, 2023 (Police Oversight Panel): Reynolds filed a second complaint against Councilmember and State Rep. Junie Joseph. It alleges Joseph violated city code when she voted against appointing a special counsel to investigate the earlier complaint related to the nomination of Police Oversight Panel members. The investigation found the complaint “has no merit.”
Feb. 7, 2023 (Police Oversight Panel): Jane Hummer, a local political organizer and energy consultant, filed a complaint alleging two uniformed city police officers violated department policy and city code when they attended a January city council meeting and “stood in support” with a representative of the police union who asked city councilmembers to delay voting on the appointment of the six Police Oversight Panel members. Hummer described this as an “inappropriate show of force” that sought “to intimidate the city council and the community members present.” She alleged that this action also violated police department policies and procedures related to wearing a uniform off duty and showing affiliation with the Boulder Police Department while expressing a position on social issues. That complaint was routed to the city’s Police Standards Unit for investigation.
March 14, 2023 (Drug overdose prevention centers): Katie Lehr, who last year sought to unseat Rep. Judy Amabile for a seat at the state Capitol as a Republican candidate, lodged a complaint against Councilmember Nicole Speer. It came after Speer testified at the Colorado Capitol on behalf of the City of Boulder on a bill to make it easier for local governments to create drug overdose prevention centers, also known as supervised injection sites. (A Senate committee later voted down the bill.) The Boulder city clerk denied Lehr’s code of conduct complaint, stating such complaints can only be filed by city residents, according to email records.
March 17, 2023 (Drug overdose prevention centers): Emily Reynolds filed a nearly identical complaint. The Boulder City Council appointed a special counsel to investigate it. On May 12, an investigator released a report finding it “less likely than so” that Speer violated city code. The City Attorney’s Office has closed the case.
April 27, 2023 (Personal conflict with a councilmember): Kate Lacroix filed a complaint against Councilmember Matt Benjamin. According to evidence in the complaint, Lacroix posted a photo on NextDoor of a house that she described as Benjamin’s. But Benjamin said the house was actually his neighbor’s house. He asked Lacroix to write a letter to the family she “falsely doxxed and apologize to them.” Lacroix’s complaint alleges Benjamin “continued to dismiss, badger, and name-call me” in violation of the city’s code of conduct. The City Attorney’s Officer dismissed the complaint, in part because “the allegations that were made in the complaint, even if substantiated, would not constitute a code of conduct violation,” Sarah Huntley, a spokeswoman for the city, said in an email.
April 30, 2023 (Modular home factory): Dana Hessel, a Boulder resident, filed a complaint alleging Jay Sugnet, the city’s housing senior manager, violated city code when he represented both the Boulder Valley School District (as a consultant) and the City of Boulder (as an official) during a Planning Board meeting last year. The complaint names other city officials as violating the federal environmental permitting processes related to the plans to build a modular home factory on the school district’s property east of the City of Boulder. Residents who live near the property have said they are concerned about noise and environmental impacts, among other issues. Separately, they are suing the city for allegedly violating land-use laws. The city council is yet to appoint an investigator to the complaint.
Changing the complaints process: ‘You can’t make it too hard’
How councilmembers respond to the wave of complaints remains to be seen. Any changes they make to the complaint process will be a balancing act between filtering out meritless allegations while preserving an avenue for residents to voice their concerns. One concern with so many complaints is that frivolous ones could obscure more serious assertions.
Jane Feldman, an ethics consultant and member of the Denver Board of Ethics, said one way to take some politics out of the complaint process is to give more control to an ethics commission or board to screen and investigate complaints. In addition to Denver, cities such as Colorado Springs and Fort Collins have independent boards overseeing ethics complaints. Boulder does not.
She said she has seen complaints “clearly brought for political purposes” in Colorado. But she cautioned against overcorrecting.
“You can’t make it too hard, because you want to encourage people who have information to come forward,” Feldman said. “I think to a certain extent, it’s a part of being an elected official, that you’re in the public eye.”
Any changes are likely to prompt pushback from residents. Reynolds, who helps lead Thinkboulder, a group initially founded to fight high-density housing at the Alpine-Balsman development, has filed three complaints against councilmembers.
“If City Council members don’t want to receive so many formal Complaints, they should endeavor to follow the Municipal Code exactly, to the highest legal and ethical standards rather than side-stepping the rules of the Code,” she wrote in an email to Boulder Reporting Lab.
Councilmember Speer, whom Reynolds named in a complaint, said she believes she followed city code when testifying on the drug overdose prevention bill. A few days prior to the hearing, city policy officials had decided to support the bill. Their backing, the officials said, was based on a policy statement, approved by the Boulder City Council, saying that the city would support behavioral health treatment options.
Rather than change the code of conduct complaint process, Speer said the city could make its code of conduct rules clearer.
“It will protect folks from having complaints against them that are due to following the processes that you are supposed to follow,” she said. “It is important for everybody to be on the same page.”