There is an unusual erosion of locally based civic life underway in Durango and La Plata County.
We are told that American civic life has been in decline since the middle of the last century. Contrary to this national trend, our local population in Durango and La Plata County is volunteer-minded and civically engaged. We have an educated and diverse populace who offer free professional assistance to our local leaders. Yet, rather than embracing our extensive local expertise, our local leadership is actively reducing or dismantling it altogether.
In place of citizen-based advisory and quasi‐judicial boards, our local city and county elected officials are increasingly moving toward the use of outside consultants for advice and policy direction.
In the echo chamber world of for‐profit consulting, this trend is detrimental to our local democratic process.
The growing trend of outsourcing ideation and decision making to consultants allows blame to be placed on the consultants, and not on our elected officials. This is an expensive, non‐local and ineffective form of policy creation, and is a disservice to all.
Recently, Durango City Councilors, including two lame duck members, voted in a last-minute hearing to consolidate five advisory boards into one. In a delusional turnabout, this was marketed to us with the idea of increasing democratic engagement. In reality, this is not about having a more engaged citizenry, it is about reducing the workload of our elected officials and their staffs. Durango leadership is undercompensated for the work they perform, but they knew this well before they decided to run for public office.
More citizen-based board consolidation is planned by January 2024. Developers will be happy to hear that the leadership of Durango is slated to consolidate the Design Review Board, Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment into one board. In full disclosure, I currently serve on the DRB and BOA. While initially, I thought this a good idea, I have come to realize it is not.
The Planning Commission serves as a philosophical board for city-wide planning decisions, whereas the DRB protects Durango from taking on the look of “any town USA.” The BOA handles land use and development code discrepancies that fall out of the purview of the Planning Commission and DRB. Each board is fundamentally different and each board was created as a reaction to pressure asserted on staff by developer demands. Any redundancies these boards may have are assets, not liabilities.
La Plata County leadership recently reduced its health board from seven members to five, and also voted to remove the board’s power to hire our new La Plata County public health director. La Plata County leadership further demoted the Board of Health to an advisory role instead of a quasi‐judicial one. Because of this, the Board of Health instantly lost three highly qualified local volunteers to resignation and placed much of their power into the hands of La Plata County leadership and Otowi Group, a paid, non‐local consultant firm.
The recent decisions to reduce citizen engagement are alarming and unsolicited. This leadership-driven dismantling of civic society has been poorly received in the court of public opinion. Please, local leaders, take pause and think fundamentally about the reasons for your undemocratic decisions.
Please, halt the effort to further condense citizen-based boards and commissions. We have a local citizenry as varied and beautiful as this wondrous place we call home. Don’t take us for granted.
Blake Fredrickson is an architect and a lifelong resident of the Colorado Plateau.