The “Christmas Wishes” expressed in last Saturday’s Camera by the Editorial Advisory Board were right on. Emily Walsh succinctly described our current situation: “I cannot understand why we have let difference, hate and fear encroach on every interaction we have.” Bill Wright concurred: “I wish for respect and patience with people we don’t agree with. Especially if the person you don’t agree with is me.”
Former Boulder City Council member Andrew Shoemaker perfectly captured what’s needed: “Let’s work on the one wish that could be attainable in 2022, and which is the first step to any chance of resolving the rest of the list — collaborating with an open mind to tackle Boulder’s problems. You may have great ideas about how to solve our local problems, but so does your neighbor. Other citizens with different approaches also care about Boulder as much as you. Let’s consider checking our egos at Boulder’s door and recognize that it’s OK to change our minds.”
In my experience of almost 40 years in Boulder politics, the essential first step in following Andrew’s advice is to avoid defining a situation in emotionally loaded terms that make anyone who disagrees with the proponent morally wrong, but instead to focus on gathering all the facts, whether they agree or disagree with the various knee-jerk responses.
For example, even though I’ve paid some attention to the issue, I still have no idea what portion of the homeless people in Boulder formerly had housing here but then lost their places to live, versus the portion that were already unhoused and came here from somewhere else. Or the portion that would accept housing if offered, or are simply not capable of taking care of themselves, or are substance abusers and like Boulder’s liberal attitude and just want to hang out, etc.
What do other communities in Colorado do about their homeless population, and do they have a problem on Boulder’s scale? Having this kind of information as the starting point of the discussion would defuse a lot of the catch-phrase polarization that currently dominates the conversation.
The next step is to start asking the hard questions that come along with the various proposed “solutions” to complex issues — growth being a prime example. I put “solutions” in quotes, because typically they are relatively simplistic (“I support more housing”), lack substance (“Boulder should be welcoming”), or fail to address their implications (“Business growth is good for the economy”).
Fleshing out the implications of these vague “solutions” and having hard-edged pro/con analyses will help put some reality to the discussions. Implications include effects on traffic and its attendant congestion and emissions, on our water supply with very significant constraints because of drought and the overused Colorado River, on infrastructure (rec centers, libraries and such), on housing affordability, on crowding of parks and open space, and so forth.
And there are cost issues — who pays for increased transit and schools, how much will water bills rise and more. The point is that whichever growth scenario you pick, there is no free lunch, so having reality-based analyses puts everyone on the same page.
Assuming that these two steps have been taken, then there must be some real community discussion. When this is done pro forma people legitimately feel they are being treated like unavoidable irritations, and the issue gets polarized.
The discussion around CU South is a case in point. The City Council kept acting like all the issues were addressed, even though they clearly weren’t. Witness the annexation agreement that kept changing. Worse, the big issues citizens raised — the apparent inadequacy of the flood protection, the inequity of spending all the money on one small part of the community’s at-risk flood areas, and the massive traffic congestion from weak mitigation requirements, among others — were just ignored or discounted.
There really was no forum for taking a critical look at the technical questions that community experts tried to raise — for example, the potential for flooding of the supposedly newly protected areas by the Viele Channel or Bear Creek, the value of using local flood walls and the like to protect individual or collections of properties as an alternative to the undersized detention pond.
The problem is that when such issues are avoided, people become more rigid in their positions and create exactly the ill will and positionality that Walsh, Wright and Shoemaker were concerned about.
Maybe it’s time for the council to set up community forums in which these complex issues can be fully debated, including with the council. We clearly need something better than what we’re doing.
Steve Pomerance is a former member of the Boulder City Council. firstname.lastname@example.org