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Phil Stern's Reflections on Boulder in the 1980's (1987)

an interview just previous to his retirement from Boulder

He is garrulous, has a wide range of interests, and of an emotional constitution. And today he has a bad back, making him shift in his chair uncomfortably. While he doesn't say so, it is fairly obvious he is in some pain. His eyes are tired, but as he warms to his various topics, his face lightens and relaxes. Phil Stern, Boulder City Councilperson, likes to talk.But he is also a good listener. Interviewing him, one has the feeling that the questions were particularly good, and that actually it wasn't so much of an interview as two authorities discussing the world. I paid for the coffee.It is early Wednesday morning. Last week he had returned from Kansas City, his stomping ground from years back, and when he got out of the car something gave. Friday he went to a chiropractor. Saturday, reaching for a hot dog, it went out again. He'll live, but he has to start getting some regular exercise, he notes. "Walking, that's about all I want to do in that regard now."

Stern was elected to the Boulder City Council in 1981 and started his term in January of 1982. He is up for re-election this Fall, and he is undecided about running again. "I don't want to, "he says, "but that depends upon who else might run." He is concerned that the many environmental issues that he considers his province might not be addressed in his absence.

He is a lot happier with the Council now than when he first appeared there. "I believe that the Council is now far less intimidating to people. That was due to the Mayor (at the time, Ruth Correll). There was an attitude that the Council bought into, of 'We know best!'

"I cannot tell you how many times that I specifically heard that sort of statement being made verbally behind the scenes at Council meetings…. That was my initiation at Council and I was appalled."

This is one of two major changes Stern has noted in his years on the Council. "The process is now more open. We have more hearings, get more information out to the public." It still isn't as quick to publicize certain things, he notes, like the EPA suing the city over the Marshall Land Fill, but it's much better.

"A lot of this is due Linda (Mayor Linda Jourgenson, who replaced Correll at her retirement last year). Her style allows for full participation." Correll, says Stern, would establish a queuing order at meetings, making sure speakers supporting her view got heard and that opposing views did not get equal treatment.

The second major change is the relationship between City Staff and Council. "Staff tended to digest information and you got what very little they thought you could deal with," he says. Was this condescending attitude, er, justified? "Yes, there was probably justification. And there were problems. There was an attitude of "We know best, not you."

Part of the problem, says Stern, is that even in other towns, few professionals or trained financial people run for Council seats. "You tend to get do-gooders, house-wives, and the socially responsible. But that doesn't necessarily make them good at number crunching or drawing conclusions that are appropriate. In particular, utility matters. Water, sewer, etc. These go beyond the heads of most." And so staffs take over.

"It's taken a lot to turn that around in terms of material being presented in such a way that Council - which is the policy making group - can make decisions." There is a tendency, he notes, for there to be a lot of quantitative rather than sustentative material presented.

Stern fought that, and now thinks that the Staff enjoys being able to display their various expertise under hard questioning. There was resistance.

Stern himself has changed. Once the lone vote against Jim Piper being appointed as City Manager to replace Bob Westdyke, Stern now says "I'm satisfied with him now, because I have seen that he represents the conservative influence, which you should have when you have a liberal council." He wishes Piper were vocal more often about certain things, but notes a new City Manager has to tread softly for the first year or so.Although the City of Boulder has a budget shortfall in the millions of dollars, Stern thinks it is just a question of the Council being firm about priorities. "About 75% of a city's expense is with people, and that's very hard to cut." Yet, there are examples of things that, Stern says, might have been done.

Boulder spends about $20,000 and up each year to have the Human Relations Commission write up a report on certain matters. When this was instituted, Stern says, Boulder had been told that information of that sort was not available elsewhere. Stern questions whether that is still true, and in any case if the money couldn't be better spent. This year's report was on working women. Last year's was on the elderly.

But that is a small matter compared to others, like housing. While obviously "important," priority should be given to maintaining what the city has rather that expanding the program. "In the current market, there is no way we can afford to expand." (Stern's views on this are similar to Council Member Bob Greenlee, considered the most conservative, pro-business element. Greenlee once rhetorically asked, regarding low cost housing in Boulder, by what standards the city might judge the program's success.)

And "we now have a, what? $10,000 beer barrel sculpture in the Sculpture Park? I think it absurd. I would rather have seen the money go to keeping the Library open.

"At this point, we have our priorities all wrong. I think the public gets its best tax buck out of places like the library." For another $70 to $100,000 a year, the library could be open all the time. "'So why don't we do it? We don't do it because of all this human labor with their pet projects." Stern thinks the Library should be kept open, but not expanded as some people want. Stern is worried about the library putting on a sales tax increase as a separate issue in the Fall election, as the Council wants to raise sales tax also for other reasons. What will happen?

"I can't see either one of them passing, and that's probably fine with me."

About a year ago, a wish-list of projects was brought before Council. It included things as varied as Library expansion to purchase of softball fields. "I challenge the basic assumptions of that laundry list," says Stern. "The Boulder Council is not used to making cut-backs. There was an attitude of 'We can always get a bond issue,' but the public won't buy that anymore." Stern noted the 1985 defeat of a drive for a Cultural Center. In a separate election, the issue was defeated by nearly two to one.

Other projects, like the new jail, he views more sympathetically. "I think funding for the jail should have been put to the voters, but I remained neutral on it. I am convinced we need more jail space." And anyway, he notes, Boulder had to get the police out of the floodway."

Many of these problems would be neutralized by zero-based budgeting, says Stern, because it would force different groups to integrate their needs to the whole. That has a familiar ring. Is Stern a Libertarian? "That's possibly true," he says. "I am fiscal conservative. A true fiscal conservative."

He leans forward suddenly. "You talk about a city that's gone off the deep end when your major issue is what to do about deer; that's a warped sense of what is a major problem…" he says in reference to neighborhoods complaining about mule deer eating their flowers.Well, what about the national joke: Boulder's Foreign Policy initiatives. Isn't that a waste of a municipality's time when such things have no effect whatever? Stern doesn't agree with that. "I don't object to it. It connects you to global issues and gives the job some depth. As for myself, I have to feel good about something, and I have these feelings on national and international things that are not being heard, otherwise.

"We do have to be careful on how much time we spend on these things, though. But they're part of your responsibility, and if you don't like it, get out."

Among Boulder's looming problems is the ultimate horror: bicycles. "The infractions by bicyclists are a major problem, but licensing won't work. There are too many bikes, and we can't control the University's anyway. You need a Bicycle Patrol, giving tickets to them. We had licensing in the past: too complicated."

Will Boulder ever regain the economic boom of the early 1970's? "It would come only at the expense of, by a very rapid degradation, Boulder." Stern also feels that much of the boom in years past was fueled by less than above-board means. "My impression is that drug money, now gone, had a major impact on Boulder's economy in the 1970's." Ergo, much of the criticism the business community levels at the City Council is not altogether valid.

Should City Council Members be paid? Would that improve the quality of representation in Boulder? "Well, it would allow you to devote more time to it. (Stern estimates Council members average around 20 to 30 hours a week). But then, there is only so much time you can devote to it. You get jaundiced. You burn out and money is not going to resolve that issue and might make it worse. And then you have people who'll stay on just for the money, even though they're burnt out.

"Would we have better government if we kept the current system and paid? I don't think so. In fact, I think it might harden positions and make people less sensitive."

A solution, said Stern, might be to limit time on the Boulder Council to "…two terms or 8 years, whatever is more."

Stern would prefer that money be made available for Council to have its own staff. Under the city charter, Staff reports to the City Manager, not the Council. Therefore, the only pressure can put on Staff is by pressuring the Manager, which is not an efficient way to get information to Council. The problem is that when a Council member has an idea, he cannot get Staff to research it without two other Council members giving their approval. "This can lead to certain inertia."

Stern heaps praise on City Attorney Joseph N. de Raimes and Assistant City Manager David Knapp as "the best," despite his frustration with the system. Nevertheless, he has come to appreciate the 'checks and balances,' as he refers to them, that almost institutionalizes tension between the professional Staff and the 'amateur' Council, and one senses he is quite proud of Boulder's city government.

Stern fought the Cultural Center bond issue, and was the propulsion behind the controversial smoking ordinance. He worked hard to get an electric generator from China set up to earn cash for the city. Few Council members have ever initiated as many plans that affect Boulder's citizens as directly, for good or ill. If Philip Stern, now in his fifth decade, chooses not to run, it will be a very different City Council sitting down to business next January.