Activists fighting Ballot initiatives to stop Developer Favors for high density development.
Becky Boone opened her Ignite Boulder presentation last weekwith a disclaimer: "I do not represent the city of Boulder. All these ideas are my own. I don't want a strongly worded email to City Council tomorrow about the things I'm about to say."
Then Boone, a fellow with nonprofit Code for America, laughed and said she knew her audience didn't care. The slide behind her changed to show a smiling Julie Andrews from "The Sound of Music" dancing through the Chautauqua meadow with the caption, "Look at all the (expletives) I give."
Boone is in Boulder on a $150,000 contract with the city to work on expanding community outreach beyond traditional constituencies as city leaders develop a new Comprehensive Housing Strategy.
During the May 13 presentation before the tech-friendly crowd, she uttered the F-word five times, and showed it eight more times in her slides — including four times in a single image that played off Dr. Seuss' "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."
The strongly worded emails to the City Council didn't come the next day or the day after.
By Friday afternoon, Code for America had apologized for Boone's profane presentation, and Boulder officials acknowledged that herIgnite Boulder talk did not represent "the level of professionalism expected by the city's consultants."But when the Boulder Neighbors blog posted video of the speech on Thursday, activists concerned about the direction of development in Boulder reacted with outrage — both to Boone's language and what they saw as her endorsement of one side of the debate.
When reached Friday, Boone declined an interview request.
She used last week's five-minute talk at the Boulder Theater — built around the common Internet expression of "zero (expletives) given" — to implore the tech-industry audience to get involved in local government, especially around the housing and development issues that have become so contentious.
Ignite Boulder is a ticketed, 21-and-up event held every few months that features "short five-minute talks about geeky passions." The most recent installment was held during Boulder Startup Week.
"What do you guys think about this?" Boone said as the slide behind her showed the sentence, "Boulder needs fewer jobs, not more housing."
"Does this represent your opinion?" she asked the Ignite Boulder crowd. "This is actually a conversation that's happening, and if you don't get involved, this may be the way it goes. I don't want you to just sit in this room and say, 'God this sucks.' I would love at least some of you to actually do something."
Steve Pomerance, a former City Council member and Daily Camera columnist who long has advocated for more restrictions on growth, had particularly strong words for Boone.
"If she thinks the way to engage young people in this serious conversation about Boulder's future is to say the F-word as many times as she can and insult people who have made Boulder what it is, the city hired the wrong person," Pomerance said. "If the city wants to restore any credibility to this process, she can't be out there managing public engagement.
"She has destroyed her own ability to function as a facilitator."
Backlash at the backlash
But the backlash to the speech quickly generated its own backlash, much of it on social media and much of it just as profane.
"(Expletive) censorship," Ignite Boulder founder Andrew Hyde wrote on his blog. "I stand fully behind Becky. ... It is really time we started giving a (expletive)."
In an interview, Hyde said Ignite Boulder was aware of the content of the speech and found it "uncontroversial."
"The reactions I've seen are kind of puzzling to me," he said. "I think anyone calling for more participation is a great thing."
Hyde said Ignite Boulder didn't receive any complaints about the talk at the time or immediately afterward.
Boulder's housing-strategy process has been contentious from the start.
Those who want to see more workforce housing are advocating for greater density and other changes to city rules. Those opposed to current development trends see affordable housing as the Trojan horse by which denser development will be forced on Boulder, with community character destroyed in the process.
Boone's speech highlighted a disparity in public engagement in Boulder.
More than half the city rents their housing, rather than owns. But renters make up roughly 24 percent of participants in public meetings. Those under 40 represent 65 percent of the population, but only 17 percent of those who participate in public meetings.
Less than a third of Boulder residents vote in a typical local election, and Boone told her audience that "some of you are(expletive) lying" when she asked how many voted in the last local election and the audience clapped and cheered.
Speech 'does not represent the city's views'
City spokesman Patrick Von Keyserling said Boulder has been in contact with Code for America about Boone's presentation, but has not made any decisions about whether she should continue to work with the city and how her role might be affected.
"The presentation does not represent the city's view, the city's commitment to engagement or the level of professionalism expected by the city's consultants," Von Keyserling said Friday. "When Boulder does community engagement, we want to engage every member, all age groups, all demographics. The presentation did not accomplish that.
"We understand the desire to reach out to new audiences, but this was not done the way we would have liked."
When the Code for America project was announced, Boulder officials emphasized that they wanted Boone to help them reach segments of the community that have not previously been involved, such as renters and young people.
In a statement emailed Friday, a Code for America representative said the organization wished to apologize for distracting from the important work of community engagement and hoped this would be a learning experience.
"We at Code for America sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by the profanity or tone of Becky Boone's Ignite talk last week," Catherine Bracy, director of community organizing, wrote. "Our goal in our work with the city of Boulder has been to open up new channels for residents, particularly those whose voices are under-represented in traditional channels, to participate in the public decision-making process."
Not in 'best civic interests of the city'
Zane Selvans, who favors denser development as a way to get more affordable housing in Boulder and support transit options, also wrote a blog post in support of Boone on Friday, saying her overall message of civic engagement was "pretty wholesome."
"I think it's just an opportunistic swipe at her," Selvans said in an interview. "She's working to get younger people and renters involved, and people who don't want to get that constituency involved feel threatened by that."
Selvans said that if the city doesn't keep working with Boone, it will send a message that it supports a status quo in which property owners have an outsized voice.
"They engage with a population that you have not historically engaged with, and they do a good job and you punish them?" he said of Boone's work. "That is a political act in favor of the status quo. I can understand why, politically, you might do that because the people who elected you are upset, but I don't think it's in the best civic interests of the city."
Pomerance said Boone's role means she should have maintained a scrupulous neutrality.
"She certainly has First Amendment rights like anyone else," he said. "However, if she wants to be a facilitator of a conversation rather than being a representative of a certain group, she should have kept her mouth shut."
'Inappropriate and disrespectful'
Kay MacDonald, who writes the Boulder Neighbors blog, said she posted very little commentary with the video because she thought the problem was self-evident.
She was surprised to see so many disagree with her, and she feels less hopeful than ever that common ground will be found.
"Her message was inappropriate and disrespectful to a large percentage of Boulder's population," MacDonald said. "The city manger and the planning department have invited and paid the way for Becky Boone to promote their radical ideas to a vulnerable population of people here who want to build housing on our open space and open up our town to granny units in every neighborhood, ideas that would never fly with the majority of homeowners.
"Since when can the employee of any city push her own views with a simple disclaimer that these are her views and not the city's? She has only lived in Boulder for four months, and she is trying to engineer the future of housing here following a stint in Anchorage enabling people to adopt a fire hydrant. That qualifies her to rile up a discussion of housing here in Boulder?"
Asked whether she thought Boone should keep working with the city, MacDonald said that's a hard question to answer.
"In a way, I think she was just doing the job she was hired to do," MacDonald said.