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Boulder is moving toward including a new statement regarding decorum during Boulder City Council meetings and implementing new procedures for handling incidents deemed disruptive.

City Council in the first day of its annual retreat on Friday discussed decorum and engagement with a focus on maintaining a productive environment while protecting people’s First Amendment right to free speech. Staff fashioned a statement that can be made prior to all meetings that emphasizes its “vision” for decorum.

Sarah Huntley, director of communication and engagement for the city, also suggested some different ways for Councilmembers to handle incidents where people use profanity or make remarks about staff, such as speaking up for staff and ultimately providing a warning. She also said it’s helpful when a person who aligns philosophically or politically with the commenter is the one to speak up for staff.

Council provided some feedback on the statement, which will be reworked and brought back for approval.

The decorum discussion was encouraged by former City Manager Jane Brautigram prior to her retirement at the end of October. During Council’s Oct. 6 meeting, one person directed an expletive at Brautigam and wished her ill in her impending retirement.

Huntley said staff has experienced more pushback from the community over the past year, both during Council meetings and via other outlets for engagement.

As a public servant, Huntley noted some of this is to be expected.

“When you’re in local government space, there is room for scrutiny. There is room for what some researchers call reasonable hostility, given that we as local government have the ability to make decisions that affect people’s lives — good, bad and otherwise,” Huntley said.

Neighborhood liaison Brenda Ritenour agreed. She said the discussion should center on remarks that disrupt a meeting and noted not all profanity does so.

In the presentation during Friday’s retreat, the pair shared a number of specific examples that the city considers unacceptable, including direct threats and doxing, wherein a person publishes another individual’s private or identifying information online.

Though a majority of the Council ultimately supported the suggestions, they expressed mixed feelings during discussion.

Many, including Mayor Sam Weaver and Councilmembers Mark Wallach and Bob Yates, were largely supportive of the staff’s proposal.

Councilmember Aaron Brockett said he’s firmly against any ad hominem attacks on staff but noted that in some ways, enforcing rules of decorum can be a way of maintaining the status quo.

“Outrage and anger and profanity can be a way of expressing that people don’t feel like they’re being heard or that really bad things are happening and nobody’s paying attention,” he said.

Although the conversation has been reinvigorated over the past year, it began in 2017 when the city coordinated a public participation working group.

The working group’s report outlined some of Boulder’s challenges with community engagement and public participation. It summarized five problems, one being that constructive public conversations don’t occur enough, which can lead to frustration, anger and disruptive behavior.

Another change inspired by that group was a shift from describing discourse as “civil” to instead using the word “civic.”

“The concept of civil can be marginalizing to many communities. The idea of having to show up in a certain way in order to be heard at all really was a barrier to participation,” Ritenour said.

Councilmember Rachel Friend said she rarely felt heard when she was a community member speaking during open comment. Friend recounted a time she cried during comment because she was so frustrated.

She questioned the effectiveness of public comment in general but said it seems particularly ineffective during public hearings on a night a decision is to be made. Many of the issues are months or years in the making, Friend said, so councilmembers already have researched the issue and have an idea of how they feel about it.

Huntley acknowledged this and said because of it, the city has tried to improve its process for community engagement prior to Council meetings. However, she said some people want to speak directly to the Council and feel that open comment is the best way to do so.

Other topics

Earlier in the meeting, City Council discussed a number of ideas for improving the flow of council meetings. Some procedural changes that the Council agreed to include adding information about a project’s status and process to staff memos, Be Heard Boulder and other forums, as well as moving decisions to the consent agenda or a public hearing instead of matters and creating a space on the city’s website for councilmembers to retroactively share thoughts about decisions.

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