Key votes

While the mayor doesn't have any more voting power than the eight other members of the Boulder City Council, it's a symbolic position and the face of the city. Here's a look at some of the issues Susan Osborne has voted on during her two years on the council, compared with the rest of the leaders.

The issue: "Compatible development," an ordinance setting new rules on house sizes

Osborne: Absent, but said she would have voted in favor of stricter rules

The council: Yes

The issue: Washington Village, a proposal to turn the former Washington Elementary School into a co-housing community with condos, single-family homes and office space

Osborne: Yes

The council: Yes

The issue: Junior Academy area plan, which defines the allowed uses for a proposed development at 2641 Fourth St.

Osborne: Yes

The council: Yes

The issue: An emergency ordinance setting interim rules for medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Osborne: Yes

The council: Yes

The issue: A proposal to loosen restrictions on restaurants in industrial zones.

Osborne: No

The council: Yes

The issue: Whether to discipline Planning Board member Adrian Sopher for allegations of having a conflict of interest.

Osborne: Yes

The council: No

Those who know her best say that Susan Osborne's life has been defined by optimism in the face of adversity.


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Last week, Osborne was unanimously elected mayor by her eight colleagues on the Boulder City Council. Gaining the consensus is a major achievement for an official whose political career began just two years ago.

Osborne, 65, is arguably one of the lesser-known council members -- partly because she has only served since 2007, and partly because of her mild-mannered nature. Her friends and family members say she doesn't lose her cool, crave the limelight or push any particular agenda. Those are all traits, they say, that make her fit to be the symbolic face of Boulder for the next two years.

Osborne grew up in suburban New Jersey, remaining on the East Coast to attend Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

In 1965, she moved to Boulder while her first husband attended graduate school at the University of Colorado, and she earned a master's degree in planning at CU-Denver.

Osborne then earned a job in Gov. Richard Lamm's office reviewing environmental issues before accepting a position as Boulder's assistant director for the Community Development Block Grant Program.

After three years working with various nonprofit groups and neighborhood organizations, Osborne found her niche in the city's planning department. She became Boulder's first energy director, and worked to pioneer the city's solar-access ordinance and the hydro-electric generators at the Betasso water-treatment facility.

For 10 of her 22 years with the department, Osborne was director of long-range planning and later became a senior planner. She helped design and manage the Boulder Creek Greenway, the first downtown plan and the annexation of north Boulder, and she authored mobile-home codes.

"Boulder had a reputation for innovative planning," Osborne said, but what really drew her to the profession was the neighborhood activism.

She worked to rezone her own neighborhood and to save Highland Elementary School, which was planned for demolition.

"Very early on in my time in Boulder, I became pretty committed to this place," she said.

Osborne is also the former president of Historic Boulder and has served on many city boards and commissions over the years.

Putting down roots

It was during her time working on solar issues, in 1980, that Osborne met then-Assistant City Attorney Alan Boles.

"I'm biased, but I think she's a very wonderful person," said Boles, who married Osborne in 1989. "She loves Boulder and has a passionate interest in keeping Boulder a unique and wonderful place."

In 1991, Boles and Osborne had a house built on University Hill, where they still live with their two rescued greyhounds, Ken Macintosh and Peggy, and their cat, Moon.

Animals are a big part of Osborne's life. She calls herself "more or less a vegetarian," who subscribes to the philosophy that "part of our own humanity is expressed in how we think about, and care for, other living creatures."

Family is equally as important. Osborne has two children from her previous marriage -- Derek, 44, who lives in Honolulu, and Shawn, 45, who lives in Portland, Ore.

She has two grandchildren, affectionately referred to as "the monkeys:" Noura, 12, and Zakia, 9.

Boles described his wife as "extremely well organized, a great homemaker ... a really good cook (who) has a very astute sense of style and design."

'You have this thing that could kill you'

Osborne's family and friends became even more important to her in 1997, when, at age 54, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

"It was really shocking, and everybody with cancer, especially with early-stage cancer, says you feel fine," she said. "The next day, you feel the same but you have to deal with this new knowledge that you have this thing that could kill you. It really did transform me, in a way."

During her treatment, Osborne helped organize a group of women with cancer into a support group.

Frances Draper, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council, was part of that close circle.

"I think Susan hosted the first meeting at her house," Draper said. "I always recall her being fairly upbeat -- not to say anyone isn't thrown for a loop with that sort of thing -- but I think she dealt with it in a proactive way."

Draper said she remains friends with Osborne, whom she praised as a "gracious, kind, warm and open-minded" person.

"I think it bodes well for us that she is going to be our mayor," Draper said.

Boulder resident Christy Sweet, 67, was also a part of the support group.

"We just naturally were drawn to each other," she said of her lasting friendship with Osborne. "She's probably the most knowledgeable person I've ever met about the city of Boulder. She just has, I think, the most incredible love of Boulder.

"It has been her life."

Osborne said she learned a lot from having cancer, and from the friends she made while surviving it.

"The little things that used to bother you don't bother you anymore," she said. "It was the experience of cancer and the support group that made it so crystal clear that friendship with others is maybe the most important thing in life."

Four years ago, Osborne went through another trying time. She had to have her right ankle replaced because a skiing accident she suffered in her 20s, coupled with years of long-distance walking expeditions, left her bones battered.

She said the injury means "some of the things I have loved in my life, like long-distance walking, are hard for me now," something that she said has given her a better perspective about Boulder's disabled community.

Partly because of her battle with cancer, Osborne retired from her city staff position to take a teaching position at CU. For nine years, Osborne taught in the College of Environmental Design, which she called "probably the best time of my life."

She also completed dissertation research for a Ph.D. in planning. Her research involved traveling to more than 50 planned communities in the United States and Europe, studying whether ideal communities could be engineered through long-term planning.

'I'll just do the best I can'

Last week, Osborne took the center seat at the City Council chambers to direct her first meeting.

She said she's ready to fill the day-to-day management of agendas and meetings and to become, in essence, the face of the city when it's invited to the national or international stage.

What she worries about, and said she considered when council members approached her behind the scenes about becoming mayor, is the target that's sometimes put on the mayor's back.

She said she has "certainly been in difficult and controversial situations all through my career in planning in Boulder," but has never been the target of personal attacks.

She got a taste of that for the first time earlier this year when the council debated controversial house-size rules.

Her longtime neighbor, Mark Gelband, publicly lashed out at her for having scraped an older structure on her 17,200-square-foot lot to build her 3,975-square-foot home.

Gelband said he thinks it was hypocritical of Osborne to support the city's "compatible-development" ordinance, which limits how big houses can be built, because she already has a large home with the ability to expand. But despite their disagreement, Gelband said he thinks Osborne is a good choice for mayor.

"I think that the council did the right thing to elect somebody who can perhaps moderate the two sides of an issue," he said. "I do think Susan is a thoughtful person."

Osborne said that if she has a failing, it's that she's "pretty sensitive, which probably doesn't help much as a local politician."

"I think I'll just do the best I can," she said. "At my center, I know who I am."

Councilwoman Crystal Gray said there's no one more suited to heal some of the wounds left behind by the election season than her longtime friend.

"You can't categorize Susan as having one type of friends," Gray said. "She has a capacity for engaging with a lot of different types of people. I think it's going to allow everybody in the community to move forward."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or urieh@dailycamera.com.