I interviewed Matt Appelbaum on Tuesday. The main impression I got from Matt was what did not happen in the meeting. He did not campaign or sell himself, not even indirectly. Unusual in a politician to say the least.
I asked what the big problems are that Boulder is facing. He started off on the revenue picture. He made the very valid observation that available revenue drives the vast majority of what the Council can and cannot do. He discussed where we are and what the future looks like, with a couple of very interesting observations.
First he said that the revenue needs to be allocated to cover what we are going to do today, but have some left to try new things. Because if we allocate every penny to what we are presently doing, then we have no ability to try anything new. And a city needs to keep trying new things to find what else will work well for it. This is a very important issue to keep in mind when we have to cut existing programs because the impulse will be to spend every last cent on existing programs.
Second he pointed out that Boulder actually still has a good income for a city its size. But it has great expectations for services provided. So another way of looking at the budget crunch is that we have more than enough money for the basics, but that all the extras we take for granted may be too extensive. This does give the crunch a little perspective. It also shows why revenue sharing is a chimera (Matt did not mention it).
He also touched on the open space taxes. He thinks when they run out (in about 10 years) the proposal will be to continue that sales tax amount, but to steer it to the general fund instead. That's apostasy for some but is probably what will come to pass at that time. And that will help the general revenue picture at that time.
He brought up the changing city demographics and societal changes which also affect the revenue from sales taxes. But he didn't offer up anything in terms of addressing that. I brought up taxing Internet sales and he does agree that needs to happen, but that was at my prompting. So very good understanding of where we are and how we need to handle the revenue decrease. But no proposals for changes to how the city is funded (that is a very tough problem).
We then got on to the recent F.A.R. legislation. He clearly is annoyed by all the sturm und drang surrounding it. The nut-cases from both sides that come out on issues like this have to be annoying for the council & city employees – Matt doesn't hide his annoyance as well as most of them do. I give him kudos for speaking honestly.
He thinks the legislation is good, and its impact will be a lot less than most think. This took us into a very interesting direction. Matt is a major proponent of trying something, seeing how it works, and then tweaking it as required, and then watching it again. He was effusive in his praise for the present council for their willingness to go look at things that are not working well, and then adjust them.
He then discussed how all cities have some zoning regulation. And how cities will initially bring in new regulations that at first are the end of the world and 20 years later are consider "of course." So for F.A.R. he see that over the next year a moderate number of people will build or remodel under the codes. And we will see what impact they actually have. Based on that the council can then adjust the rules.
I asked if something like that should be put to the voters and he was adamant that it should not. Matt is a giant proponent of representative government in that the voters do not have the time or resources to dive in to these issues and then vote on them. He said that the voters are smart enough that they could get up to speed, but that the time doesn't exist.
This led to his worry that with the F.A.R. vote just before the election, people will be voting in the heat of the moment rather than 6 months after when things had settled down and people had cooled off. He worries than Macon especially faces a vote based on a low level of information when people are still emotional.
I disagreed with him on this and said that I think voters can make a fair decision with the information they have, because it actually is much simpler. People have a good gut feeling for if they think Boulder needs more or less regulation and they will base their vote on that basic viewpoint. Matt sort-of accepted that – I think.
But the bottom line here is Matt thinks it requires a high level of information to make these basic policy decisions. Many agree with that viewpoint. (I personally subscribe to the view that people are pretty good at making reasonable decisions with limited information – the Wisdom of Crowds approach.)
Next Matt brought up carbon emissions. He wants to see Boulder reduce it's usage by improving the buildings in the city. And he wants to see it happen a lot faster than is presently occurring. His proposals in this area is finding better ways to get the word out to people about how they can save themselves money by reducing the carbon footprint of their buildings. (News to me that the City had been doing something about this already.)
He then brought up affordable housing. I asked if that was lower income or middle class housing and he replied yes. He made the common observation that the middle class housing problem is the harder issue. No major specifics though.
He then spent about 10 minutes discussing how the last 8 months have been incredibly interesting for him. As mayor he is focused more on the regional, state, and federal level. He is Boulder's representative on a boatload of different committees at these levels. He's clearly having a really fun time working on those issues.
What is also interesting in retrospect is while he talked quite a bit in general terms, no specific items from his work on those committees were brought up. This may be because he didn't think to do so. Or it could be that at that level with all the different jurisdictions involved, nothing happens in just 8 months. He did speak about working on US-36 and FastTraks, but not what we will see.
He also talked a bit about the blogosphere. Matt is not a fan, especially not of the Camera comments section. (I've gotta agree on that last part, the Camera comments section seems to mostly be the same 6 people shouting past each other.) Matt prefers the professional journalists from the newspapers rather than a random individual posting based on limited knowledge. I think this goes back to his view that it takes significant time and effort to know enough about a subject to discuss it knowledgably. On the flip side, he agreed to this interview. So it's not like he's shutting out the blogosphere.
Well there you have it. Matt is very honest that he thinks we should elect good representatives and leave the governing to them. That they put in the required time to understand the issues. That full time journalists are the only ones with the knowledge & skill to report. This is a pretty common viewpoint, especially with people with skills that require a lot of training. But being up front about it rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
I'm more concerned with what he will do for us in council. With Matt you know what you are getting. And what you are getting is a technocrat who has a strong understanding of the job and will approach the problems we face in a professional and workmanlike manner. He'll almost certainly follow the mainstream course – which we like when that's what we want, and we dislike when we prefer radical change. All in all, he's arguably very well suited to be mayor of this crazy town.
Interview podcast Download MattApplebaum