Saturday 16 July 2022
Councilor Bob Yates’ monthly newsletter was the subject of a nearly hour-long debate this week on appropriate speaking engagements for elected officials. But if you heard Thursday’s city council meeting, you might not know.
Yates and his obnoxious lyrics were never mentioned; Council members maintained their long-standing tradition of not directly naming colleagues in disputes. But his behavior has drawn strong, if subtle, criticism and could eventually lead to a “desirable” amendment to the rules on how local officials should represent their views and each other in public.
It was about the July issue of Yates Boulder Bulletin, the e-mail newsletter that he sends out to around 6,700 residents every month. In it, Yates explains recent votes and council actions, previews upcoming issues, shares his views, and sometimes introduces nonprofit organizations from the area. Readers are introduced to local issues, and coverage of more controversial matters is often followed by a spate of calls and emails to the Council.
His stance on moving city council races to even-year elections — which he opposes but pushed the progressive majority to voters for this fall’s vote — called into question his colleagues’ motives. He characterized the effort as “scheme” and his colleagues as “chutzpah,” which he defined for readers as “Boldness or audacity, sometimes to the point of hubris. It characterizes an unrealistic overconfidence unconstrained by convention, tradition, or prudence.”
The perspective didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Nicole Speer, who read from a prepared statement on Thursday evening to spark the discussion she wanted.
“How we represent each other in public … impacts our ability to trust each other and work together effectively,” Speer said. “It is critical for us to disagree without mischaracterizing or misinforming the public and without fear, confusion and suspicion in the public process.”
Speer called for a rule or informal agreement between council members to speak “truthfully and accurately” about one another in public, and to adhere to “issues” rather than characterizations of individuals.
“That shouldn’t stop us from talking about things that interest us,” she said. “It asks us not to focus on our intentions and motivations, but on our policy proposals.
“What I’m trying to do is not limit us, but invite us into a higher-level discussion.”
intention, claim etc Obligation
There is a code of conduct for elected officials on Boulder’s books. Chapter 7, Section 2-7-8, entitled “Expectations,” attempts to “set ethical standards for directing officials.” It dictates behavior in relation to more serious issues such as fraud or bribery, but also the statistic that Council members:
(2) “Perform duties with honesty, diligence, diligence, professionalism, impartiality and integrity”
(3) “Striving to the highest ethical standards to maintain the trust and confidence of the public they serve, not just the minimum necessary to meet legal or procedural requirements” and
(7) “Treat colleagues and the public in a professional and courteous manner”
All of these rules are only enforceable through censorship, an official procedure that no council has recently implemented. A speech regulation would also not be legally binding, advised prosecutor Teresa Tate: it would have to be “desirable” in nature.
That would be enough, said Speer. “We can commit to each other.”
Still, for some in the Council, even an unofficial commitment was a step too far.
“I am wary of signing anything that would interfere with my ability to use my voice in a serious and honest way when trying to serve the community,” said Councilor Rachel Friend. Although “I personally take great pains not to say derogatory things about colleagues,” and to be transparent and accurate, “I’m not interested in making a commitment not to speak any particular way.”
Proper speech was a big issue for this council. They forced a rewrite of expectations for participants in Special time at the beginning of the regular council meetings, where up to 20 members of the public… and public hearings prompted by a handful of rants. (While obscenity, racial epithets, and other disruptive language are prohibited, the guide says nothing about truthfulness or respect.)
There was a lot too Agita — to use another Yiddish word; this means “fear, stress or anger” – because of a proposed courtesy promise during the last election season. Similar to Speer’s Council proposal, signatories to the pledge agreed to “focus on debate about the issues” and “refrain from attacking individuals or organizations that question their character or motivation.”
Ironically, some Council members found themselves on the other side of the courtesy debate on Thursday. Speer refused to sign it, as did several others. Council member Mark Wallach, who introduced a courtesy pledge in 2019, argued against Speer’s recommended rule.
“As far as you asking the councilors to withhold their speech,” Wallach said, “I can’t get over that.”
A majority of the Council appeared to have at least some support for a resolution or rule. It could be “on purpose,” Mayor Aaron Brockett said.
“We can’t monitor each other. We want to make an effort to model behavior.”
He and others spoke about the disproportionate impact of divisive speech on vulnerable people. I’ve seen “over and over” female councilors get emails with the absolutely worst criticism and language, he said. “It’s horrible.”
Prosecutor Tate said she would draft something and bring it to council for approval and likely further debate.
Perfectly legal, but maybe dodgy?
This isn’t the first time Yates’ newsletter has worried his political opponents. Boulder Library Champions took so much offense at what he wrote about a proposed district that they published two blog posts correcting “myths.”
Other boulderists were confused and upset after finding themselves on Yates’ mailing list after contacting the city council. Contacted three different people boulder beat about it in the last few months. One shared a message they received from Yates’ official email account introducing them to the Boulder Bulletin and tell them how to unsubscribe.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to add your name Boulder Bulletin mailing list,” it said. “If you’d rather not receive it, just email me or ‘unsubscribe’ when you get the next issue on Monday.”
It’s perfectly legal, said former prosecutor Tom Carr.
“Emails to the Council are public domain,” Carr said. Everyone “can make a request for this information and also send them emails.”
“It’s probably legal, but it’s dodgy,” said Anna Segur, who began receiving Yates’ newsletter after emailing the council. It “borders on abuse of the position and his access to residents’ emails. I was not included in a newsletter for any of the other city council members that I wrote.
“I unsubscribed from his newsletter because I didn’t want to read Bobaganda anymore.”
Current city attorneys declined to comment through a spokesman on whether or not Yates sought legal advice from them about his newsletter.
“It is the position of the prosecution that they cannot discuss the legal advice they provide to certain council members,” Sarah Huntley wrote in response to calls and emails. “The prosecution advises elected officials in their official capacity.”
Councilwomen Rachel Friend and Junie Joseph also publish newsletters related to their roles as elected officers. Friend doesn’t automatically subscribe to people who send her an official council email, she said.
She consulted former city manager Jane Brautigam to see if city officials would review the newsletter for accuracy. They are willing to do that, Friend said.
It’s unclear if Yates’ newsletter is reviewed by city officials before publication. Not only was he silent during Thursday’s discussion, but he also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Author’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Mark Wallach co-sponsored a courtesy pledge in 2019, not in the last election.
— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle
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guide Bob Yates boulder City council City of Boulder courtesy promise behavior Choose June Joseph Markus Wallach Matthew Benjamin Newsletter Nicole Spear Rachel friend speech