By J. Patrick O’Leary
Wheat Ridge City Council voted in October to do away with the existing baseball field at Anderson Park as part of a master plan for renovation, following a long evening of impassioned and contentious testimony by residents and park users. Although the fate of the field was ultimately determined by a vote of an elected city council, the detailed plan was the result of months of work by the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
The commission is a group of eight appointed – not elected – citizens, two from each district, whose duties include reviewing all existing and proposed legislation relating to parks and recreation matters, and making recommendations on parks and recreation matters to the city council.
In the case of the Anderson Park Master Plan, council members sent the commission’s plan back for revisions (redesign to keep the ball field), but ultimately approved it as-is at the following regular session.
The lesson, for anyone who wants to guide and influence city decisions, is to take an active role in your municipality’s boards and commissions, by applying for an open position or regularly attending the meetings.
The Town of Mountain View has recently appointed or re-appointed five citizens to its Board of Adjustments and Appeals. The City of Edgewater has one vacancy on its Board of Adjustment, due to a recent resignation. However, the City of Wheat Ridge is seeking candidates for a total of 26 openings on eight of its 10 boards and commissions.
How much influence can a citizen serving on a commission or board have over city decisions?
A lot, according to Wheat Ridge Treasurer Jerry DiTullio. In the past he has served on the city’s campaign finance reform committee and housing authority, as well as various county and state boards. He’s also served as mayor and a council member.
“You’re in on the front end of many projects that come before council or the public,” he explained. “You can also direct input to staff or city council about an issue… guide the discussion to include information from the public as well… so once they make a decision, all their recommendations are forwarded to city council. If they accept those, you can say you helped influence or shape public policy.”
But not always. Council does not have to accept the recommendations.
“That’s happened in a few cases. But more times than not, they are open to recommendations.”
By example, he said city council took the city’s DIRT task force’s recommendations on infrastructure projects and financing “verbatim,” and sent it to voters as ballot issue 2E in 2016.
But influence is not everything.
“Volunteering, in my mind, isn’t about influencing city decisions; it is more about supporting the city’s process,” said Karen Hing of Edgewater, who has served on several commissions and is currently on that city’s Planning & Zoning and Board of Adjustments.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done to be a good steward of the community. Boards, commissions and council all work together. Serving on boards or commissions gives someone an opportunity to represent, and most importantly support, the direction you, your friends, and your neighbors would like to see the city move toward. Your commitment also assures that diverse opinions are vetted through a strong and equitable process.”
Like DiTullio, Hing believes influence is not guaranteed.
“As a commissioner, you are but one vote among many as you give recommendations to the city council,” said Hing. “Ultimately it is council who makes the final decision. Your personal experience with your neighborhood and neighbors provide insight to the pros/cons of pending changes to Edgewater. Your experience brings much needed insight the process.”
And the opportunities to serve on a board of commission are not always available.
The Town Mountain View – a city of about 500 tucked between Wheat Ridge on the south and west, and Lakeside on the north – has limited opportunities for service, due to its size.
The town’s charter calls for two boards or commissions: the Board of Adjustments and Appeals (BOAA) and a Planning and Zoning Commission (P & Z).
“Due to the intimate size of our Town, the BOAA is an active board, while the P & Z Commission's work is done by the Mountain View Town Council,” said Town of Mountain View Mayor Glenn Levy.
“While we, as elected officials, would welcome the development of new boards and commissions, due to our diminutive size, it can be challenging to staff such citizen bodies,” said Levy. “As a result, citizens who serve on our six-member Town Council work on zoning, public works, public safety, administrative, and development issues.”
Even if not appointed to an open seat, just showing up and participating in commission and board meetings can have an impact.
“The (city government) process isn’t as easy to navigate as most think,” said Hing, “but with regular attendance to various public meetings the process starts to make sense. Once a resident understands which body of city officials are responsible for what, it is much easier to effectively get your concerns in front of the proper people. Actually, city council and the mayor are usually not where your voice will make the strongest impact.”
Hing explained most land use issues are debated for months in front of Planning and Zoning before a recommendation is made to council. “P&Z’s forum is much less formal that council’s public comment. Your input at P&Z will become a part of the recommendation made to council.”
“If you go to the meeting, you have an impact,” said DiTullio. For example, Wheat Ridge’s planning commission meetings are not only opportunities to provide comment, but to learn more and have questions answered.
“People see postings on property, but don’t know what’s going on,” DiTullio explained. At the meetings, fears and suspicions of residents can be addressed.
“They back off…or (sometimes) find out something they don’t like.”
DiTullio said this public input and discussion is what influences the final recommendation to council.
“In some ways boards and commission members have more input than city council,” he said. “In some ways they (council) are second-class citizens, because they’re the last to hear.”