This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 11, 1997.
A century ago, after a private dam gave way and zippered the small town of Johnston, Pennsylvania, that city’s politicians were judged too corrupt, and the system of City Management began. It took a disaster to create the concept of a City Manager hired by the political flacks. Every Spring, I reflect on that cause and effect, and this year had the analogy burnished by Boulder, in the middle of its yearly death watch for its 100 year flood, firing its City Manager.
All this at a time when the vision of both Boulder and its government are changing. There is an effort afoot to rearrange city government, and it bears looking into. Boulder has a weak mayor system, with nine council members elected on an at-large basis. The City Manager answers directly, publicly, and each week to the Council. The majority of new proposals mandate that Boulder go to the ward system, where most council members would be elected from specific districts, and a few run at large. One of these last would be the Mayor, who would for the first time be elected by the public and not the other Council Members.
Boulder, excluding the University, now has a little over one hundred thousand people. This puts it into the category of a middle-size city. But its government structure is that of a small town. One of the reasons, for example, that the non-unionized Sheriff’s department keeps pushing for more and bigger jails is to keep itself a viable player. As Longmont and Boulder grow, their police departments have as well. It is an open question whether the Sheriff’s department will have much to do beyond incarceration in future years.
There is much talk about the cozy nature of our government. Three people serving live two doors apart, including the mayor. They are all independently wealthy by most standards. It is an open question whether Boulder would be better served by ward bosses or the effete who currently rule. For the most part, Boulder has done awfully well despite the complaints of realtors and developers. If Boulder were so anti-business, you wouldn’t know it by the new ones currently elbowing in. But Boulder is what it is because of the environmental and picky micro-management of those who, whatever else, would continue to live here. That is hard to throw away.
But we need to now before we have to later. Boulder is many different spheres, many of whom exist with no knowledge of, or interest in, the others. If we don’t structure our government for the future, we could end up with the worst alternative: a non-elected bureaucracy riding roughshod over elected citizens out of their depth. That was the underlying conflict with the Jim-Crain-Tim Honey affair - and it was resolved in a poor fashion, however beneficial the result. We need to study the city government before crisis mode, and we don’t have much time. The dam is trembling.