Is the Boulder City Council really in charge?

Daily Camera scolds Council for their iPhones. Maybe our system of governance is the real issue.

| Mar 31, 2010

The Boulder Daily Camera recently attempted to generate controversy by revealing that members of the Boulder City Council are provided cell phones for their official calls. Much to their credit, the people of Boulder took the article in stride, giving it a barely stifled yawn. After all, City Council is the governing body of the city, elected by the voters. Isn’t communication part of their duty to the citizenry?

iphoneHowever, the Daily Camera’s otherwise silly story does raise an important issue: is City Council actually in charge of City government?

Under Boulder’s charter the Council members are given the responsibility to govern the municipality. Also under the charter the Council has delegated authority (but not responsibility) for the day-to-day operations of the City government to an appointed City Manager. Council members are actually prohibited from interfering in the internal operations of the City even when they observe problems. All they can do is to communicate their concerns to the City Manager. The issue, therefore, is how Council members can best supervise the staff to which it has delegated that authority.

In doing a bit of research, I found that the democratic part of Boulder’s government doesn’t get much City support. The nine Council members who assemble on the dais in the Municipal Building are paid a pittance, approximately $9,000 per year for attending at least twenty regular meetings plus dozens of committee meetings, study sessions, public hearings and staff briefings. In addition to their miniscule salary Council members get an Eco-Pass, some meals during meetings and the afore-mentioned cell phone.

Council members do not have an office in the Municipal Building, nor do they have laptop computers (other than their own personal ones), access to a printer or free parking at the Municipal Building lots. Council does not have a staff member assigned to do research or to help with the hundreds of emails and telephone communications each Council member receives in a week. Most Council members put in at least twenty hours a week on City business and often much more, and that in addition to their personal jobs and family duties.

So, for the provision of a cell phone, the Daily Camera smells scandal. I smell an attempt to boost lagging newspaper circulation.

When City staff members make mistakes or fail to perform the citizens rightfully hold City Council responsible. Taxpayers should be willing to properly fund the Council’s operations and oversight capabilities. Otherwise, perhaps its time to discuss whether the archaic City Manager form of government has outlived its usefulness in Boulder and should be replaced with a system that gives more authority and responsibility to our elected officials.

Columnist Eric Karnes is a Boulder-based commercial real estate research consultant to several national clients.