Silencing boards defies constitutional principles

When you cannot work for the city and you don’t want to run for elected office, what can you do to serve your city government directly? You can serve on a City Council-appointed board or commission. We have 11 such boards in the city with dozens of volunteer members.

Volunteers give up their personal time to offer advice and oversight regarding zoning, historic preservation, the airport, the golf courses, parks and recreation and much more.

Except for the Planning Commission, the boards have only advisory powers, but they serve a larger function: They are the city’s broadest interface to the community.

Citizens and reporters who want to understand city decisions can often get a more open response from board members than from the City Council and management.

That may change if Bill No. 1825 passes. Introduced May 8 by Councilman Warren Harhay on behalf of the city manager and the city clerk, this bill pretends its only purpose is to clean up and standardize the language governing the boards. By all appearances, the real purpose is to shut down and shut up the board activists who are starting make the city leadership feel heat over a rapidly lengthening list of mistakes, improprieties and illegalities.

Without a doubt, some cleanup is needed. When I examined the city code for the purpose of writing an ordinance creating a Boulder City Utilities Commission, I could see it clearly: Each board was created separately from all others, without regard to earlier language. As a result, the language needs streamlining for consistency.

If that were all we got with Bill 1825, it would be great, but it goes farther. It sets standards of conduct for all members and allows the city manager to summarily dismiss any member of any board with notice or appeal, based solely on his whim. What kind of offensive conduct does he wish to seek and destroy? Read Item B under standards of conduct:

“B. Board members will make no announcement of, nor give any information about, any pending matter before the board, or action taken by the board, to the press or other media. Board members shall refer inquiries from the press or other media to the staff liaison.”

This blatant violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution is unenforceable in court, but when the city manager has the absolute power to fire without notice, who gets to go to court? Read Item D:

“D. The city manager may remove any board member appointed by the City Council for a violation of a city administrative policy.”

No doubt a violation could and would be found for anyone who speaks out about City Hall’s myriad improprieties. To add insult to injury, Item A makes a requirement that seems suspiciously like a loyalty oath:

“A. Board members are public appointees subject to the standards and provisions of the city’s advisory board standards of conduct as amended from time to time. Board members shall acknowledge the same within 30 days of appointment by filing a written acknowledgment with the city clerk.”

These deficiencies give the lie to anyone who claims to support transparency in government and then votes for this proposal. Consider questions raised but unanswered:

■ Who gets to write the letter of acknowledgment that board members are required to sign? Will it require them to pledge never to speak to the press or media about the matters before their boards?

■ Who defines “press” and “media”? In today’s social media world, doesn’t just about everyone with a Facebook page or Twitter account qualify? Where is the line drawn? For instance, I have a journalism degree but have never been a working journalist. All my writing is on spec. Am I media? Is Tim O’Callaghan, now a church deacon but former editor of the last Boulder City newspaper, media? Is Nathaniel Gee, who has a blog? Is Boulder City Social media? Most likely yes on all counts, if the city manager found it convenient to proclaim it so.

■ If the city manager runs wild and starts dropping board members right and left, what recourse is there? A complete appeals process would be needed to deal with it. This bill allows for no appeals.

Councilman Harhay assures me that the introduction of the bill is just the beginning, and it is subject to change. If he removed the three items that would destroy the purpose of having our boards — items A, B and D — then he would salvage the bill. Otherwise it is safe to predict that, come election time, the constituents of the boards and commissions will savage those who voted for this wrong-headed attempt to stifle the press and public discussion.

Why did the Founding Fathers create freedom of the press? Exactly for these situations.

Dale Napier is a Boulder City business consultant with a background in urban transportation and development.

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