Denver City Council one of the worst for allowing public comments? Not anymore

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After months of research, Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech concluded that Denver's city council was among the worst in the country when it came to allowing public comment.

Heated debates followed. But this week, Kniech successfully lobbied her colleagues to agree to a change in standards that will give the public more frequent and official opportunities to comment on policies under consideration at the council.

In Kneich's opinion, the need for this switch was clear. "I could not find a single local government in Colorado or...[across the country] that took as little input as us," she says.

Her staffers studied the procedures at five other cities in Colorado -- Aurora, Lakewood, Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs -- as well as nine municipalities out of state, including Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. According to their findings, Denver finished dead last when it came to offering members of the public standardized opportunities to have their voices heard.

How did Denver operate prior to the change, which was adapted yesterday and will go into effect in August? The only time that the public could comment in an open forum was during official hearings for zoning, urban renewal and the budget. On bigger or more controversial matters, the council could hold "courtesy hearings," but those were designated at the discretion of the council president. In other words, if someone from the public wanted to speak up about an issue in an open forum that did not fall within those categories, they would have no standard way to do so.

Moreover, even when folks did have the opportunity to comment, it was usually near the end of the process at full city council meetings, when decisions were close to being finalized. Kniech felt that led to disgruntled constituents.

"People say, 'We want an opportunity to speak to you before everything is decided,'" she says. "I was elected a year ago. I was not surprised by the fact that people would disagree with various decisions we made. I was surprised how frustrated people felt that they didn't have a chance to address [the issue]...in a public forum.... I very early in this job started to hear a lot of frustration [that] we had made decisions without listening to their input in an open forum."

When Kniech first introduced the idea of addressing these problems, she says colleagues expressed concern that a shift in practice would unnecessarily slow things down.

"Change is hard for any institution," she says. "I think there was concern about the balance between efficiency and openness."

After discussions, she tweaked her proposal to address some concerns. Now, the new standard, which will be written in on council agendas, is that there will be an automatic fifteen-minute comment period for policy change discussions at committees, and speakers will have two minutes each to voice their opinions.

Redistricting, the renaming of a park and upcoming finance reform discussions are a handful of issues where the councilwoman thinks folks would capitalize on this new opportunity.

Of course, folks can -- and often do -- voice their opinions by reaching out to council members and staffers directly, she notes. But she thinks it's important that they have an opportunity to do so in a forum where others can hear what they have to say.

"A private e-mail isn't heard by [other]...citizens," she says. "There is something special about speaking to your decision makers while they are sitting in their decision maker seats in a public forum. That's what this is about.

"I felt this was a good way to increase people's confidence in our government," she adds.

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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