Give a Fuck About Local Government

Last week, Ignite Boulder held its 25th event, with a sold out Boulder Startup Week crowd in the Boulder Theater.  Becky Boone (@boonrs), a Senior Fellow from Code for America, gave one of the talks.  Yesterday it was posted online in all its ever so slightly #NSFW glory:

Predictably, such a blunt and impassioned call to action, presented to a currently mostly unengaged Boulder constituency (about 850 of them…) has pissed some people off, and some of them want Becky’s head to roll, because she had the gall to try and get some folks to give a fuck about local governance.

That, quite frankly, is bullshit.

The whole point of getting someone from Code for America involved in outreach related to the city’s housing strategy was to engage currently underrepresented constituencies in the city (as reported in the Daily Camera), yes, with a focus on using technology, but talking to our local technologists and getting them engaged seems like a good way to make sure this important work continues after the 6 month fellowship ends this summer.  We’ve got the demographics on who participates today, and the crowd at the Boulder Theater that night isn’t showing up to tell the city what they think.  Given that, this talk might even have made sense as part of Becky’s work for the city — but she didn’t do it as someone working with the city, a fact she points out right at the start of the talk.  She did this on her own time, to try and get a community she’s part of to participate in the governance of their own city.

Some members of City Council and the Old Guard politicos might not find the tone of the talk “appropriate,” but she wasn’t speaking to them.  The tone was calibrated to the audience, which by all (Twitter) accounts received it quite well.  The talk, like all Ignite talks, was extensively vetted by the event organizers, who have little interest in offending their attendees.

No Expertise Required!
No Expertise Required!

So far as I can tell, the only overtly partisan statement in the talk was when she noted that no particular expertise is actually required to participate in local governance… while a photo of Sarah Palin was displayed.  The talk was almost entirely factual in nature, with a few jokes (mostly poking fun at the audience itself) and a few questions.  It included:

  • Demographic information about who currently participates in city meetings and processes.  She noted that renters are woefully underrepresented, being about a quarter of all housing meeting attendees but making up about half of the city population.  She also pointed out that while 65% of Boulder’s population is under the age of 40… only 17% of housing meeting attendees are in that age range.
  • A brief explanation of the structure of Boulder’s city government — that we have a City Council who appoints a City Manager, rather than a directly elected “strong mayor” acting as the city’s executive authority.
  • The fact that only about 1/3 of registered voters participated in the last odd year election (which she shamed the audience over).
  • Information about how much City Council gets paid for what is essentially a full time job… a whopping $11,000 a year.  Good luck living on that in Boulder! (at least… without illegally sharing housing and eating dumpstered food… now if only we had someone on Council who did that!)
  • The factual statement that 5 of the 9 City Council members are up for re-election this fall.
  • She gave a little back-story on the successful Fairview High School Net Zero Club student campaign to get a paper/plastic bag fee implemented.
  • The factual statement that a community organization (which was not identified) is collecting signatures for some ballot measures this fall, which would “add some additional hoops.”
  • A query to the audience as to what they think of the statement “Boulder needs fewer jobs, not more housing.” which is a position that has certainly come up more than once in our recent housing and development policy discussion.
  • A call to the audience to get involved and get their friends involved, to tell Council and the rest of city government what they think about that position, and generically, other governance issues.
  • Statements highlighting the relative ease and high value of engaging in local governance, compared to larger jurisdictions.
  • A call to the audience to bring their skills and ideas to the table in support of local governance.
New Era Baby
New Era Baby

Stripped of the F-bombs, this is some pretty reasonable, wholesome stuff.  The audience didn’t seem bothered by the language, and truthfully, it was meant to rile them up.  This wasn’t an official (or even an unofficial!) city communication.  The calls Council are receiving calling for Becky to be fired are couched in terms of “appropriate” language and professionalism, but those norms vary widely between different populations in the city.  It’s also worth noting that New Era Colorado has in the past made extensive use of the slogan “Vote F*ucker” in their attempts to get young voters to turn out… e.g. in support of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility.

vote-fucker
Strong language… apparently warranted for the Muni campaign!

Response to the Ignite talk online, amongst the constituency it was designed to reach, has so far as I can tell, been overwhelmingly positive, if you go look through the mentions of @igniteboulder and #igniteboulder @boonrs on Twitter.  In fact, it might just end up getting some more young folks engaged in city governance. That’s the real reason people are calling for Becky’s head. They know that broader engagement by young people, renters, and the tech community will result in the erosion of their political power.

Becky Boone is doing a way the fuck better than average job of getting young people engaged with the city. Certainly a better job than a communications department that won’t let staff use social media as the spontaneous, interactive tool it’s got to be if you want it to be effective (all while forcing employees to wear ties. In Boulder. As if that adds credibility.  Personally I get suspicious whenever I see a tie…).

If City Council and the City Manager’s office give in to the totally inappropriate, unreasonable demand to fire someone who is actually doing a good job of getting unengaged people to participate, it would be a brazenly partisan act, an act in favor of Boulder’s incredibly conservative status quo, and in direct opposition to the goal of creating a more broadly representative civic sphere in the city.  It would also be in direct conflict with the stated goals of getting a Code for America fellow involved in the first place.

Free Speech*
Free Speech*

Additionally, this type of speech — by a citizen, on their own time, related to a matter of obvious public concern — is the most strongly protected speech in the US.  Any disciplinary action related to this talk would raise grave issues related to freedom of speech, and might warrant involvement by the ACLU or other organizations interested in protecting the rights of citizens to freely express views related to issues of governance.

I trust that City Council and the City Manager will stand by this citizen, who has been working hard to make Boulder’s democracy less worthy of the curses I’m sure I and many others will end up hurling at it between now and November.

Okay, actually just kidding.  I don’t trust them.  Which is why you need to support this kind of outreach, and call bullshit on the people who want to shut it down:

Email: council@bouldercolorado.gov, and copy the City Manager, Jane Brautigam: brautigamj@bouldercolorado.gov.

Tweet it from the fucking rooftops, using #BoulderCouncil and mentioning council members who are part of ye olde Twitterverse: @MaconCowles @JonesZan @Shoemaker4City @sampweaver @tim_plass @LisaMorzel

Post a link to this blog on your goddamned Facebook, and express your dismay by mentioning the City’s Facebook.

Don’t make it easy to ignore you, or they sure as hell will.

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