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Boulder ballot content taking shape with possible Xcel agreement under spotlight

City Council explores measure to broaden emergency powers

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Boulder’s November ballot is starting to take shape, with political commentaries now forming around a possible city settlement vote with Xcel Energy on a new electricity service deal, a major local issue referendum that could bring an end to the years-long municipal utility endeavor.

Residents have chimed in on the issue since Mayor Sam Weaver announced he and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates this spring started talks with Xcel, the private power provider from which the city has seriously explored severing with court cases on the matter currently in process. It is a matter sure to dominate the attention of city voters, if the discussions result in City Council putting a proposal for a new franchise agreement on the ballot, with tens of millions in public funding spent on the lengthy exploration of cutting ties with Xcel to stand up a city-owned, city-run, renewable energy utility.

One group, called Empower Our Future featuring some members with close to 20 years of experience working on local power issues, recommended proceeding with caution. It suggested ensuring that the city is able to realize 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030, and other more detailed recommendations, such as the promise of developing building-to-grid projects that let two-way communication and load shifting occur, and an agreement not to raise electric rates for 10 years.

“Any agreement should be quantifiable and enforceable and have a sunset clause not to exceed five years; if there is not an affirmative vote of the residents of Boulder to continue working with Xcel, then Boulder should revert to an out-of-franchise status with clear rights to proceed with a community controlled electric system,” Empower wrote to the Camera.

Crystal Gray, a former Council member from 2003 to 2011 who is part of the group, last week encouraged Yates and Weaver to go into the talks with Xcel keeping in mind the results of past discussions with the company on the city’s desire for a green, updated electricity service.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back, 2010, Xcel proposed a wind deal in exchange for a franchise, but our finance department said we could not afford it. Then we put the municipalization issue on the ballot, it passed,” Gray said.

Weaver has said that a change in leadership of Xcel’s Colorado business has contributed to greater chances for successful settlement negotiations, which have proven unfruitful in the past, including as recently as three years ago.

A seeming willingness on the company’s part to let the city to participate in the development of the grid — possibly including through putting certain sections of it on self-sustaining islands, or microgrids, that get power from rooftop solar or other hyper-local sources so they do not rely on large-scale transmission — has been key to grabbing the mayor’s attention.

“The answer the city was given by Xcel at the time (in 2016 and 2017) was there is no way,” Weaver said.

Since discussions resumed, the company has agreed to let the city examine its plans for 2030 set to be filed with state regulators under non-disclosure agreement, which is a huge step by the company that differs from the past discussions, according to Weaver.

“I think some of the points that we’ve been able to talk about so far were points that were off the table, even for discussion, in 2016 and 2017,” Weaver said. “… We have put out the idea of a couple of projects that are ongoing in Boulder where we might road test some of the concepts for how we work together. … What are the interconnection requirements and what can be enabled through looking at grid design holistically and differently? I don’t know where these discussions will go.”

Weaver said Tuesday morning a mid-July public hearing might be scheduled before Council on whether the elected officials should put a proposed franchise agreement with Xcel on the ballot. The city is continuing the legal process to condemn Xcel assets, in case the community’s energy goals cannot be reached through a settlement, as the talks continue this summer.

Emergency powers proposal

Council on Tuesday also mulled three other matters it may present to voters for approval this fall, including one that may have allowed for an entirely different city response to the coronavirus, had it been in place for the outbreak.

That possible measure would allow Council to waive city charter requirements when an emergency has been declared. Right now, the charter prohibits giving free water, City Attorney Tom Carr said, which has proved problematic amid the pandemic, although the city has not cut off any water service for nonpayment during the public health crisis. The proposal, if approved by voters, could also allow Council to alter signature thresholds or extend deadlines for resident-led initiative petitions to certify proposed measures for a citywide vote.

The latter issue has become perhaps the hottest political flashpoint in Boulder during the pandemic, with local advocates arguing the requirements to gather thousands of signatures from city voters in person to make the ballot is dangerous and far more difficult to meet than city lawmakers intended because of social distancing. So far, Council has taken no action after two 5-4 votes against pursuing an allowance of electronic signatures, and has so far held off on using its power to put the issues being pushed by residents on the ballot.

Officials are going to continue to weigh the proposal to have voters give Council the option to waive charter provisions in emergencies, with emphasis on the guard rails that would limit the use of such power, perhaps through requiring a unanimous or three-quarters Council vote to enact it, and calling out actions the body could or could not take with the ability.

“This proposal is intended to be very narrow and apply only to declared emergencies and for actions necessary to protect the city during the emergency. The committee proposes that this limited power requires approval by at least six Council members,” city staff stated in a memo to Council. The power would exclude holding executive sessions or increasing Council compensation.

Because of the financial implications of the pandemic, it decided against pursuing a change to how Council members are paid so that compensation is not increased, but evenly distributed over a calendar year to “minimize the erratic payment of compensation and benefits deductions which often require Council members to contribute to benefits in some months,” the memo said.

Council will also later decide on whether to ask voters to increase the size of the city’s Arts Commission from five to seven members.

Meanwhile, the outbreak has lengthened the odds a new Boulder County affordable housing or transportation tax will be placed before voters for approval.

“The county is still considering an affordable housing/transportation tax, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely they’ll move forward given the financial challenges everyone is currently facing,” the memo said.