Boulder to test phone-in public comments at upcoming City Council meeting

Have thoughts on remote participation?

Email engagement manager Sarah Huntley at with your ideas and opinions.

Attendees at the Boulder City Council‘s June 5 meeting will be the first to hear from fellow citizens in absentia, as the city conducts a test of a new remote participation effort that could become a model for future civic engagement.

For the first time, open comment will be allowed via telephone. Three callers will be patched into the chambers for their allowed three minutes. If successful, the city hopes to expand the program, a move that will hopefully result in more participation from a wider audience.

The idea was introduced by Councilwoman Jill Adler Grano during a January council retreat. Elected just two months before, she “quickly realized how impactful open comment is” in bringing issues to the attention of the governing body.

“We get hundreds of emails and we just can‘t get to them all,” she said. “Hearing someone‘s voice and what their concerns are when all nine of us are together is very powerful.”

Grano said there are three groups she hears from consistently that can‘t make the Tuesday evening meetings: families with children, senior citizens and business owners. It is her hope that the tool will bring more people from those communities into the legislative process.

There is no target date for a wider rollout, said city engagement manager Sarah Huntley. That decision will depend on how the pilot goes. Boulder last year, limiting speakers to 15 in number and selecting them via lottery.

Huntley said would-be commenters for the June 5 meeting will be given an option to become one of the three initial callers. Instructions will be emailed to participants, and the calls will take the last open comment slots.

The in-house audio system has been tested successfully a handful of times, but Huntley cautioned patience: “It‘s entirely possible we will encounter technical problems.”

Depending on public reception, the option could expand to other forums or technologies. The idea of video calls was toyed with, but a working group thought it could be limiting to certain populations. Audio is more inclusive, Huntley said.

Adding video capability also would require an investment of time and money. The city is using existing technology to feed in audio; callers will be able to hear everything happening in council chambers but only be able to speak when their turn comes.

Lafayette is experimenting with allowing its City Council members to attend remotely, an idea that‘s been floated — and twice rejected — since 2011. Whether it ultimately works will largely depend on the success of the technology; the body this year.

“We‘re approaching this fairly slowly (but) we are very enthusiastic about this opportunity,” said Huntley. “If people find it helpful, we do think it could broaden participation in community conversations.”




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