I had lunch with Suzy Ageton today. I have to admit upfront that Suzy is my favorite councilmember. She is almost always a voice of reason when the discussion goes off into never-never land (a common occurrence here in Boulder). And that same grounding in reality and an instinct to use common sense was on display throughout lunch.
There was a common theme in what Suzy choose to discuss, and her approach to those problems. First, on every single topic, she was discussing trying to determine what would best solve each problem. It was one of the most apolitical discussions I have ever had with an elected official. And she showed a good grasp of the big picture questions on everything we discussed.
Second, she discusses everything in terms of what the voters will support. She didn't frame this as a good or bad (with one caveat next) thing, just as a key part of the process. This is good in that Suzy will not try and ram something through that the citizens of Boulder do not support. But it also means that she is unlikely to lead a push for something that is very unpopular.
She also touched on the fact that 5 active & energetic people can stop almost anything in Boulder from Washington School to the new bridge on 30th St (the one with the trees). She did see that with the additional (and additional…) work that went in the final plan was better. But she clearly is somewhat frustrated by the extraordinary effort it takes to reach a decision on anything even slightly contentious in Boulder.
I asked her about the big problems facing Boulder and she sees two. The first is pops & scrapes. Her initial discussion was that she is searching for a sensible solution to the issue. She does not think one rule for all of Boulder makes sense. With that said, she does not have an answer to this problem. She's talking with a lot of people and listening to a lot of ideas, but none has struck her as a solution.
I then asked her about the issue of density vs. housing prices. She clearly sees that if we stay on our present course we will be a community for rich retired people plus a University. She says Austin is facing the exact same issue and is watching what they do to address it. We dove into some specifics on this and in each case, she does see the trade-offs, she does want to keep a middle class here in Boulder, but also in each case she discusses what the voters are willing to consider and how that limits the possibilities.
In other words, I think if there is a politically acceptable solution, Suzy will help drive it. But if the only way to keep a middle class in Boulder will require a council that gets way out in front of the voters (which I think is quite likely), it's not clear if Suzy would be onboard with that.
The second big issue she sees the city facing is the reduction in sales tax revenue. Again she shows a very good understanding of the problem, how sales tax sources are decreasing with more retail businesses locating outside the city and the changing demographics of the city also reducing money spent on taxed items. She also discussed how the only other tax sources available to the city are a head tax and increasing the business use tax – both of which will drive more businesses out of the city – which she realizes.
The best solution she sees here is revenue sharing with other localities in the area. I'll agree that that makes sense and is fair. However, I doubt the other cities & Boulder County are going to be willing to give up some of their revenue. They may be able to share on a specific new Wal-Mart store – but I think that's about it.
She also sort-of talked about how reduced income means Boulder is going to have to look at what services it provides vs. what it can afford. Politicians don't like telling people they get less (go figure) so I give Suzy props for discussing a bit about how they will have to start cutting if the sales tax picture does not improve. The bottom line here is she does understand the problem we are in, and that there does not appear to be a good answer.
What's interesting is that housing and sales tax revenue are tied together. If we had a growing middle class and strong retail sector, then we would have growing sales tax revenue. But as our population becomes older and wealthier, and our retail sector decreases, the sales tax decreases.
She then discussed the new fire training facility and how she had worked hard for years to get that in place. And she discussed that it is one of those things that doesn't get much attention, yet is very important. (I agree, the bottom line is lives will be saved because we have this.) This gets back to Suzy's core approach to the job – figure out what is needed and get it done.
Her last item that she wants to see fixed is to give the council the ability to go into executive session. This got interesting because I strongly opposed this in the last election, but said I would have supported it if the sessions were recorded and the recordings were always made public 6 months later. She said she thought the proposal included that (it didn't). Clearly she's fine with the recordings always being released 6 months later (except for personal issues), so we may see executive session proposed again in a way that will pass.
She would also like to see some other statutory changes which could help speed up council meetings. Although she did concede that elected officials like to talk and that was one of the biggest drivers of long council meetings.
Finally we discussed the lack of diversity on the City Council. I asked her what she thought of IRV (Instant Runoff Voting) and she had never heard of it. I described how it worked and how it will tend to give you a more diverse council and she found that interesting. Her initial reaction was would the voters find it a reasonable approach – again showing the key attribute of how Suzy approaches her job.
So what do we get with Suzy. We get someone who is focused on the key issues the city faces. Who does work on the important issue even if they aren't very sexy. Who is open-minded and is looking to find sensible workable solutions. And most of all, someone who views herself as a representative of the voter, looking to find solutions that the citizens of Boulder will support.
It's people like her that make the council work.