An Open Question

Are Boulder's Open Space Department and its director one and the same?

"In Boulder," Webel wrote in a letter to the Colorado Daily, "we have a grimly determined environmental lobby which seems to have a private inside track to our public land managers and to our politicians. This group considers all trails bad...As a result, recreationists and environmentalists here are at each others' throats, arguing over who gets what share of the pie. This conflict is incomprehensible to people in other parts of the country, where recreationists and environmentalists are allies in staving off clearly harmful activities such as development and extractive industries."

"We have two million visitors to open space," counters Jim Crain. "We welcome them. They're part of what makes Boulder what it is. We have 78 miles of trails."

The staff and supporters of the city's open-space department characterize its critics as selfish yuppies unwilling to give up their self-indulgent pursuits to save a fragile and threatened environment. They tend to compare the interests of such groups as BATCO, which promotes only non-motorized trails, and FIDOS, which mounts regular trail cleanups, with the depradations caused to public lands around the country by hordes of Winnebago-driving, trash-scattering tourists.

Trail mix: The Bobolink is a popular Boulder stomping ground -- and frequent battlefield.
Victoria Shearer
Trail mix: The Bobolink is a popular Boulder stomping ground -- and frequent battlefield.

But Crain's hyper-preservationist philosophy is not the only problem critics have with his twenty-year stewardship of the open-space department. In 1997, complaints from several staff members about Crain's management style reached then-city manager Tim Honey. The complaints, along with prior management reports, revealed a hostile, bullying atmosphere.

"I've seen Jim lose his temper," says a onetime member of the department's board of trustees. "It was quite startling. The situation that triggered it shouldn't have. There was yelling, shouting. He was red in the face."

In May 1997, department employees were summoned to a meeting and questioned for two hours regarding who had complained to the city manager. Crain was present, although he did not do the questioning. The atmosphere was so tense that several people dissolved into tears, and one manager went to the bathroom to vomit.

Four days later, Honey placed Crain on paid administrative leave while he investigated staff grievances.

The Boulder City Council responded with equal swiftness. At least four councilmembers demanded explanations for Crain's suspension and threatened to fire Honey if he didn't reinstate the director. By June 3, Honey himself had been forced to resign. Six days later, Crain returned to work.

According to their charter, Boulder City Council members are forbidden to get involved in personnel matters. After a resident complained, Fort Collins city attorney Stephen Roy was brought in to investigate the situation. While he concluded that the councilmembers' behavior was not legally actionable, "I'm a little disappointed because I think [they] overstepped their bounds, even if they didn't violate the charter," he told a reporter. "I hope they learned that there are citizens in Boulder who are paying attention and watching them. I hope they will take their jobs more seriously and realize they are elected officials."

Of the complaints that led to his suspension, Crain now says, "I still don't know what those issues were. I don't think there are any problems. I'm proud of the people that work in Open Space."

Over the years, Open Space has evolved from a small program into a huge department, with a staff of 66 regular and 26 seasonal employees and an annual budget of $17 million. As the department has grown, its focus has shifted from the acquisition of land -- a process, all sides agree, in which Jim Crain is a master -- to the more problematic management of those lands.

City Manager Ron Secrist has proposed merging Crain's department with the much-smaller Mountain Parks Department (which has a staff of twenty, an annual budget of $1.8 million and control of 7,200 acres), part of the Boulder Parks and Recreation system. The merger could take one of two forms, he says: In one, Mountain Parks will be folded into Open Space; in the second, a new organization will be created that subsumes both, and the acquisition of real estate will become a separate function. In either case, a single director would be put in charge of the overall department, and the city would save a half-million dollars a year.

Since the philosophies and cultures of the two existing departments are vastly different, Mountain Parks head Anne Wichmann has already offered to step down. Crain says only, "I work for the city manager, and he makes the decision."

Boulder City Council held a special study session on the merger April 17, where councilmembers listened to dozens of speakers and then, during a straw poll, engaged in a spectacular display of waffling. Since Honey's departure, the council has shown complete indifference to whatever miseries spurred Open Space employees to take their complaints to the city manager, and the topic was studiously avoided in this session. But councilmember Lisa Morzel did refer to it indirectly: "We have the top-notch person in the country in Open Space," she said. "If people don't want to work here, then they can find other jobs."

By the time the waffling was over, the councilmembers had managed to communicate that, of Secrist's two options, they preferred having Mountain Parks folded into Open Space. Several councilmembers expressed profound distress at the idea of anyone other than Jim Crain leading the blended organization but added that they would, of course, defer to the city manager.

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