Direct democracy isn’t supposed to be this complicated.
In fact, the playbook is fairly simple: People who want to amend or create a law via a ballot measure write their proposal out and then seek approval to circulate petitions. If it’s a state ballot measure, they need an OK from the secretary of state, otherwise they work with their local clerk. In order to demonstrate a base of support, they must collect signatures from a small percentage of the relevant electorate, and once they’ve done that their measure can proceed to the ballot for a vote of the people.
This happens across the country every year, and the rules are relatively consistent and straightforward.
But in Boulder this year, the process has been anything but.
What began as a typical ballot effort was threatened first by the pandemic, then by bad advice from city officials, and ultimately by elected representatives who believe they have no obligation to account for the city’s inconsistency. Now, a citizen campaign is suing, and the makeup of Boulder’s 2020 ballot is in the hands of a judge.
Occupancy rule at issue
At stake is a proposal to significantly relax the city’s residential occupancy limits, which in most of Boulder state that no more than three unrelated people can share a home, regardless of how big that home is. The campaign that calls itself Bedrooms Are For People seeks to amend the city charter to say that the number of unrelated people allowed to share a home can equal the number of bedrooms in that home plus one, and to allow four people to share a house of any size.
The campaign’s leaders felt that they needed to put the proposal to a public vote — specifically, a vote this year, when turnout is expected to be high — instead of trying to effect change by lobbying officials for a new ordinance.
“The City Council knows exactly who’s going to show up during a public process: majority homeowners, people who’ve been in Boulder for many years,” said Eric Budd, a former council candidate who co-leads the Bedrooms campaign. “Often young people, renters, are excluded from these processes.”
The idea that, for example, five friends can’t live together in a five-bedroom house has long frustrated the city’s increasingly potent — but still out of power — “YIMBY” (Yes In My Backyard) crowd.
“Boulder has a long history of privileging nuclear, familial, single-family residences,” said Bedrooms volunteer Charlotte Pitts, who previously lived in an over-occupied home and now chairs the city’s Housing Advisory Board. “By restricting the amount of unrelated people who are allowed to live together, you’re restricting the definition of family. I consider me and my friends who lived together a family.”
When she lived in a technically illegal group, Pitts said, she altered her life to avoid detection: She didn’t register to vote, didn’t register her vehicle and didn’t become active in city politics despite her aspirations.
Pitts, 24, said at one point she considered marrying her partner just to meet the city’s definition of family.
“I drew the line there,” she said. “I was like, no, this is crazy, I’m not doing this just to get on a lease.”
This is a heated issue far beyond Boulder, and it’s taken on new relevance during the pandemic, as housing insecurity rises. Boulder resident Jared Polis, the governor, has called on cities in Colorado to temporarily relax occupancy rules to provide more housing options for people who, in many cases, could face homelessness. He told reporters last week that he’d like to command this relaxation by law, but he’s not convinced he has the authority.
Like Polis, nearly everyone in Boulder votes Democratic — Hillary Clinton took 80% of the vote in 2016 — but there are two unofficial sub-parties that, on local policy matters, are frequently just as far apart as national Democrats and Republicans.
One advocates for, among other things, increases in density as a tool to address climate change and slow growth in the city’s housing costs; the median sales price was nearly $1 million in June.
“There’s nothing wrong with people who have money, but it’s producing a city without as broad a spectrum of backgrounds and incomes,” says Councilman Aaron Brockett, a member of this unofficial party.
The other side works to limit population growth in the name of preserving open space and the character of single-family zoning areas, and generally opposes most efforts to diversify the city’s housing stock.
“A lot of people moved into single-family neighborhoods because they liked that they were relatively low-density, there weren’t a lot of cars, it was a stable environment — that kind of thing,” said former council member Steve Pomerance, an influential longtime figure in city politics. “I’m not particularly interested in living in a high-density area. So I’m supposed to now go, ‘Oh, fine, let’s turn it into a bunch of dormitories’? That’s not what I bought into.”
This vision of city planning, or versions of it, has been in power for decades, and locals can count on one hand the number of renters who’ve served on the nine-member council in modern history.
7,700-plus signatures collected
When Bedrooms organizers met with the city months ago, they were told that to qualify for the ballot, they’d need to hand in about 4,000 petition signatures by Aug. 5. They were barred from collecting those signatures electronically, so they bought hand sanitizer by the gallon and pens by the hundreds, masked up and set out.
As controversial as their proposed change is, and despite the coronavirus hurdle, they collected more than 7,700 signatures.
Said campaign co-lead Chelsea Castellano, “We had people who we were telling them for the first time about this law. There were people who wouldn’t even believe us that this law existed. There were people where we were telling them they were living over-occupied, and they didn’t know that. Then there were people who lived here a long time, who remembered having to deal with this issue when they were younger.”
The measure was headed for certification until City Attorney Tom Carr determined in June that the Aug. 5 deadline was wrong, based on what the Daily Camera described as Carr’s “evolved understanding of how municipal charter and state law interact” in this case. Bedrooms was given a new signature deadline of June 5 — already past — and a new threshold requiring about 8,000 signatures — twice the original requirement.
Carr’s staff, by its own admission, did not change its tune on its own. It was informed largely by Pomerance, who began contacting Carr’s office about its interpretation in early spring. That the city could be made to reverse its position on something so basic in the democratic process, Pomerance said last week, “says that they’re incompetent.”
Carr said at a meeting in July that his office still isn’t convinced that one reading is more correct than the other, but the City Council is sticking with the latest guidance. Carr declined through a spokesperson to comment last week.
Decision put in council’s hands
There was no way that Bedrooms could meet the new threshold in time. It was literally impossible: They weren’t informed of the new rules until after the June 5 deadline, at which point, Budd said, they had only about 3,000 signatures.
The organizers shifted their approach, pinning their hopes on the council recognizing that the city had erred, respecting the demonstrated seriousness of the Bedrooms effort and using its power to place the measure on the ballot. The council majority can refer any measure it wants.
For some on the council, granting the organizers’ request is a no-brainer.
“You’ve got to trust the city when the city tells you something. Otherwise what’s the point?” said Councilman Adam Swetlik. “We didn’t give the right guidance to begin with, and council never took it upon themselves to clear up that guidance along the way.”
Councilwoman Mary Young takes a different view, as does the council majority.
“The 8,000 signatures is not something we can lower, or play with,” she said in an interview. “They didn’t meet the law requirements. If guidelines ruled the world, then we could make up guidelines for all manner of things, and chaos would rule.”
The council may yet, in fact, refer a citizen proposal to the ballot — just not the Bedrooms measure. One proposal it’s considering putting before voters, which suffered from the same flip-flop legal advice Bedrooms got, would allow for direct citizen election of the mayor.
Said Mark McIntyre, a former council candidate and the co-lead of the Our Mayor Our Choice campaign, “It’s unconscionable what they’ve done to Bedrooms. … The current council majority doesn’t like Bedrooms and wants to see it go away, versus doing the right thing, which would be to put it on the ballot.”
Council members who voted against placing Bedrooms say the proposed policy doesn’t belong in the city charter, where it could only be amended via another vote.
“For me, land use and the charter doesn’t work,” said Mayor Sam Weaver in July.
There are some on the council whose voting records indicate they probably wouldn’t vote for this policy no matter what.
Bedrooms sued last week and now hopes a judge will compel the city to do what the council would not.
No one seems happy that it’s come to this. The council members are all named as defendants on the lawsuit. And Bedrooms, despite accomplishing what the city originally asked of it, may miss a prime opportunity to put a transformative proposal to voters in a year that could easily set turnout records.
“It’s extremely disappointing that we have to fund a legal battle against our own elected representatives to ensure our constitutional right to direct democracy,” said Castellano, the campaign co-lead. “We don’t want to be doing this, but this is our only option.”
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