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Why not ask the people?

This all started when I saw the Boulder city staff’s proposal to increase the climate action tax to expand Boulder’s investment in reducing our carbon output. I applaud these efforts, having been involved in renewable energy projects since 1975 when I built my solar home, and in 1982 when I designed Boulder’s solar access ordinance. But why are we not requiring that all new buildings be net-zero in energy use? With all the new technology and the availability of community solar, it’s totally feasible and reasonably economic. If the council is not willing to take that step, why not poll the citizens to see if there is political support?

Steve PomeranceFor the Camera
Steve PomeranceFor the Camera

What also caught my eye was the additional $1.5 million for wildfire prevention efforts. After the Marshall and NCAR fires, this is clearly a very serious issue. So I contacted the city council about the fire risks associated with unhoused people camping on city lands.

The response I got back from one council member was, “No one is allowed to camp on Open Space, or in public spaces in the city. Given the number of reported campsites, it does often take a while to require people to move from any given one, but the camping ban is enforced both within city limits and on Open Space.” But apparently, the current policy is to allow 72 hours to move, likely to another equivalently risky site.

What happens if these campers start a fire that burns both city lands and adjoining houses? It seems to me that such camping creates an immediate, clear and present danger. Interestingly, allowing unnecessarily dangerous situations like this might be considered “willful and wanton” behavior by elected officials, and may void their governmental immunity protection, per CRS 24-10-105. (I found this out in 2012 when the city invited 10,000 people to view the finish of the bike race to the top of Flagstaff right in the middle of the thunderstorm season.)

Both the city and county have taken on the homeless issue quite seriously and some very good work has been done, especially the “housing first” and “coordinated entry” efforts. And it certainly seems appropriate to remove campers to safe locations as fast as possible, rather than handing out notices that just prompt moving to other equally dangerous locations. This council apparently made this decision to not require immediate action.

But why was there no polling done of the citizens to see what priority they feel would be appropriate? As I understand it, about half the unhoused are from elsewhere, apparently attracted by our liberal attitude and many services. So, the more we do, the bigger the problem gets. And it’s legally difficult to restrict services to long-time residents. But let’s at least ask the citizens if they would support the immediate removal of occupants camping in fire-prone places.

A similar situation relates to transportation planning for our arterial streets, and the County’s consideration of a sales tax to fund necessary improvements. I’ve long been a proponent of charging for auto use to pay for road maintenance and improvements. This can be done using tolls, license plate scanning of parked cars, etc. Such direct charges disincentivize the use of cars and can also provide revenue to incentivize people to car-pool, van-pool, bike, etc.

Why haven’t our elected officials asked the people whether they would prefer this approach, which is much more economically efficient? And at the same time, ask people whether they would really use more subsidized buses vs. better bike lanes or other alternatives. Given the number of busses I see that are running almost empty, maybe it’s time to check priorities with the people.

The most obvious failure in asking the public is around the proposed shift to even-year elections. I’ve found no evidence that the city has seriously polled citizens to find out exactly who doesn’t vote in odd-year elections and specifically why. Some have alleged that it’s the lower-income areas in Boulder that don’t vote. But that’s too broad a conclusion, given the 30,000-plus CU students. And more importantly, do people not vote in odd-year elections because they think voting for council doesn’t make any difference? Because they have language difficulties? Or they lack information? Or what? Having these answers would clarify whether shifting to even years makes any sense whatsoever.

Of course, there’s an obvious explanation: The advocates figure that they can convince these potential voters to vote their way. I just hate to think that’s where our politics have gone.

Steve Pomerance is a former Boulder city council member. Email: stevepomerance@yahoo.com.

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