DeFrates column: City not doing enough to engage public on big issues
The city of Glenwood is a wonderful place to live, but it has a civic engagement problem. If you’ve felt a bit out of the loop on some major decisions the city has made over the last year or two, you are not alone.
In a time when population growth and external threats like the Mid-Continent quarry expansion loom large, the city needs more buy-in from locals and more diverse voices at the table.
It is obvious, however, that city leadership does not feel the need to prioritize those things.
Before I go any further, if you are hoping for a witch hunt or a muckraking session, don’t bother to keep reading. I believe that the people involved in the government of Glenwood Springs are dedicated and passionate individuals who care deeply about the town in which they live. I know there are staff shortages and budget woes, overbooked schedules and late-night sessions at which most of us would cringe.
I also know that the majority of the people who live in this valley feel that their voices no longer count even at the local level. They are frustrated by decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods which appear to be made behind more and more closed doors.
For the city to grow in a healthy direction, that perception, and the reality behind it, needs to change in a big way.
For those on the inside, it is easy to dismiss concerns about citizen participation with the old “bootstrap” argument — anyone who really wanted to could show up.
The reality, however, is that the only voices being heard are the voices of the very well-connected, highly motivated residents with an advanced level of English-literacy, flexible schedules and disposable income. A valuable group, no doubt, but not one that represents even a significant percentage of the town’s almost 10 thousand residents.
Take, for example, the recent Strategic Plan and Visioning draft that the City Council discussed on Monday, Jan. 7. In the public comments folder there were nine comments submitted. Nine.
Only nine voices were heard from the public about a document which is meant to align the next five years of the city’s priorities with the needs of its residents. Yes, the document was drafted with input from citizen-led committees like Planning and Zoning, but the fact that only nine members of the public sent in a comment should have been a red flag.
I am a little ashamed of the town as a whole that even after a newspaper article and a month-long public comment window, only nine people managed to weigh in. I am even more ashamed, however, that the city saw that number last October and said, “Yeah, that’s enough.”
Another example of where public engagement stands on the priority list is the website for the City Council’s agendas and minutes. Most agendas do not appear until two days before a meeting, too late to find a baby-sitter if you need one. Then, if you wanted to follow up on a meeting you missed without watching the four-hour recording, you might have to wait a few months for the minutes to be posted.
My kid’s elementary school can hit me up with an email/text blast several times a day in two languages to talk about potlucks, fundraisers and traffic concerns, but the city government can’t find a way to use their automated alert emails (which you can sign up for on the website) to tell people what will be discussed at the next City Council meeting?
When minutes do become available they are full of the following three lines over and over again:
“Mayor Godes opened the item for public comment.
None were noted.
Mayor Godes closed the item for public comment.”
Even on major issues like infrastructure spending, the Hanging Lake shuttle being incorporated into downtown, and grants for the LoVa Trail have no input from the people who live in the town.
Unfortunately, sometimes even showing up is not enough.
Take, for example, the meeting on Sept. 19, 2019. I attended to speak in favor of the proposed Two Rivers Shoreline plan. Along with 11 others who spoke in favor, and one against, members of the public were actually present at this meeting.
Yet, after hearing the public comment, right as the vote was about to start, members of the council suddenly bumped the vote back. Without giving an explanation, the council suddenly agreed to delay the vote until a special council meeting at 12 p.m. the next day. Sure, it was going to be an open-door session and we were all cordially invited, but who can attend an impromptu mid-day meeting when they have inconvenient things like jobs and families?
Local civic participation has never been a thriving activity, exactly, but the complacency of the staff and council for the town to engage with citizens is not acceptable any longer.
If the city of Glenwood and the other communities of the Roaring Fork Valley want to survive the growing pains and external threats we are going to experience over the next decade, they need to do more to bring diverse voices back into City Hall.
Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer living in Glenwood Springs. She can be reached at http://www.roaringforkwriter.com
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