Working Paper 93-26, July 20, 1993(1)

By Ricky Weiser

Citizen Activist

(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Ricky Weiser for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on April 10, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

© 1993. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

I'm going to talk about the micro-level of citizen advocacy and how a single, private citizen can interface with the political realities of city councils, county commissioners, and even higher-level governmental organizations. But, primarily I will focus on how to accomplish things at the local level. This will also include methods of resolving conflicts in the local political sphere.

My particular area of interest and concern has been the interface between the city and the county. When I moved here in 1956, the relationship between the City of Boulder and a certain group of citizens, who were called, with a sneer, "fringe area residents," was not good. A bond issue was being sought by the City to move the sewer plant from what is now Scott Carpenter Park to the east Pearl location. The campaign used ads showing the City boundary. On one side of this boundary was a lovely house with landscaping and a paved road. Depicted on the other side of this lovely house was a rutted road, a tumbled-down shack, and an outhouse. I didn't like this attitude. We lived outside Boulder because we had a dog that needed a huge yard, not because we didn't like Boulder. It was at this point that I became interested in the interface between the city and the county. In the course of doing this, it occurred to me that I had to start doing something more than going to meetings and growling or writing letters to the editor.

At the same time, Boulder was attempting to plan for the reasonable and logical expansion of its utility services--sewer and water--in the north Boulder area. A friend of mine who lived in north Boulder on Kalmia had horses and those who had horses did not want to be annexed to the City because they would not have been able to keep their horses. Other people living in the north Boulder area felt that the kind of lot sizes that were available in city zoning potentially could enable someone to build six houses on the lot right next to them. Of course, they didn't think that would be good for neighborhood value.

My actions involved, first, researching ordinances. I borrowed texts from the then-planning director, Ted Mikesell. I analyzed ordinances on keeping horses in municipalities and came up with an ordinance that dealt with Boulder's particular issue. I talked to my friends. They felt that the ordinance I had drawn up would be acceptable to people with horses. Thus, we created estate zoning. This was larger zoning, compatible with lot sizes found in areas under county jurisdiction adjacent to the City, and made the possibility of annexation much easier and less-threatening for all those concerned. I wrote out this proposed ordinance and gave it to the planning director, so that he could present it to the council under his auspices. Under his name, it came with more authority. It would not have been as effective if it had been presented by me, a newcomer not even living within city limits. The City liked it, passed it, and, as far as I know, it is still on the books. From this experience I learned that a single citizen can do something.

I think that after 30 years of doing this I can claim to be, what Penelope Canan1 called, the "civic claimant." In the zoning case, I was not dealing with personal issues. I didn't live in north Boulder; I didn't have a horse. There was no particular reason for me to be concerned. The only concern was that of wanting to be appreciated as a citizen, even though I lived outside the City boundary. Over the years I have continued to be a citizen activist. It has not been done with any particular agenda, but I do have certain areas of concern.

I realize I was able to accomplish what I did because I was able to continuously attend to my areas of concern. I did not have to work eight hours a day. It is essential to be continuously attentive to one's area of concern. For me, this involves two primary things: the city-county interface and the environment. These are important to me when they happen to impact where I live, but they are also important when they don't (e.g., the estate zoning ordinance). As I look at the things that I have accomplished as a citizen, I see some overriding principles that I can pass on to you.

First, it is important to define the problem in relation to the political agenda. It is necessary to find out where the politics of the decision makers are going to enter into a particular issue. Politicians need to be informed that they have the support and the approbation of the people who elected them or will re-elect them. This is important. That is a political agenda. Also, it is important for Boulder to be able to utilize funds for expenditures on public works and public services in an efficient and sensible way. That is another political agenda.

The most effective way to conduct citizen advocacy is to find, create, or support a solution that is broader than the problem. I did not deal with just one street or one neighborhood. For example, it is more efficient that the City boundary be encompassed by compatible zoning. It is better for people who live in south Boulder, as well as the people who live in north Boulder or east Boulder, to have a way to keep a couple of sheep or a horse if they have enough land to do it. Thus, it is very valuable to try to find a solution broader than the problem and one that has broad-range benefits, not for just the problem area. This way a solution to a problem or conflict becomes more politically attractive.

Secondly, one's attention has to be wide-based. Another example of my civic claimant activism involved gravel mining. When concerned about the issue of gravel mining, I had to find out how the potential for gravel mining affected the way in which the city planned its annexations. Also, I had to be attentive to what the state said about gravel mining and the status of the gravel business. Boulder is an area that exports gravel. Decisions can't be based upon the estimated need for gravel in Boulder County because gravel, by its own nature, occurs more heavily in areas closer to the mountains. Thus, it is necessary to be quite broad-based in the things that you keep an eye on and the kind of legislation you follow.

The third extremely important aspect of effective citizen activism is to conduct very careful research. This enables you to speak from a clear, factual base. The clear separation between the factual base and individual opinion must be made explicit in your presentation. When you are stating an opinion that is not a fact, even if the you feel the opinion is as true as the sun is in the sky, it must be phrased as an opinion.

Finally, and most importantly, you must make a clear distinction between general and personal issues. This is very important in impressing the political body. The fact that you are interested in the welfare of the political entity is an extremely important point that must be made. It must be impressed upon the agency that you are speaking to that you are not just there because you hate gravel pits, for example. You want to show them that you are there because it is in the best interest of the City to make appropriate plans for the way in which their gravel resource exists and how it is going to be developed as the City expands. The presentation needs to be clear and concise. It helps a great deal if you can word it in such a way that it can be incorporated into a motion.

If you want to sum up what has been said in public hearings, if you know the issue, and you know that there is going to be a long and controversial public hearing, a good technique is to wait to speak until the end of the hearing. This way you can sum up the important points that have come out during the discussion. Alternatively, if what you want to do is direct the political body's consideration, speak early. This way you can point out to them, (you don't say this, but this is the intent), "watch in the testimony what they are going to say about this, this, and this--be sure that these are the things you listen to."

There are two more things concerning presentation that are crucial. One, speak in such a way that your audience can hear you, including the people sitting behind you, listening to the meeting. Also, learn how to use a microphone. Unfortunately, as much as some of us dislike the idea of "making love" to a microphone, you have to do it. Don't rely on the fact that the microphone will pick up your voice if you are six to eight inches away. Get close to it, so that you will be heard. If you are heard, people will listen to you. If they listen to you attentively, this will impress the people you want to get through to. If, on the other hand, people can't hear you in the back, they are going to talk among themselves, they are going to get up and wander around, and that will detract from what you have to say.

All of this is theatrics. Theatrical training teaches you how talk in front of an audience. It doesn't take very many times getting up on stage and being in a play, good, bad, or indifferent, to get the feeling that it is exhilarating to be in front of an audience and having people listen. It also helps to learn the art of projection. If you are going to be speaking in front of groups, get used to using your voice properly. Pull your head back and sit up very straight, like a horse that is arching its neck. You will find that your voice rounds out and becomes fuller because it has a larger box in which to resonate.

The final suggestion is to use humor, if there is any way that you can do so, during your presentation. Of course, there are times when you want to leave your audience with a more serious note. You will know, by the tenor of what it is that you have to say, whether or not to use humor. If people have testified before you and the mood in the room is angry and unpleasant, if at all possible, use humor to start your speech. It will often break that unpleasant mood. It can make every one feel a little bit better and it will make what you are going to say more acceptable.

Having talked about the technique of communicating as a single citizen to a political entity, let me give you a couple points about the way in which I deal with interfaces. This is a slightly different and broader aspect of citizen activism.

First, one of the most difficult things about the interface between a city and a county is getting the two of them to talk the same language. A flood-plain, as it goes across invisible political boundaries, is the same size, same shape, and has the same amount of water in it. It is ridiculous to call it a flood-plain on one side of the boundary and something else on the other. I am finally getting these different entities to use some of the same terms.

The second aspect to interfacing is to recognize the other jurisdiction. This is becoming very important between the City of Boulder and Boulder County. The City of Boulder is approaching the outside limits of its predesignated growth area. As is true of any growing city, for the people who live on the other side of that boundary, there is an alternative jurisdiction. Conflicts arise when residents and politicians in the City try to have an effect upon the people who live in the county area beyond the City boundary. If the City wants to have some jurisdiction there, they must offer something in return. Perhaps it is the possibility of annexation. This is essential if the City Council members are going to expect people, who do not vote for them, and over whom they do not legally have any jurisdiction, to allow the City to have some power in their lives. There has to be a give and take.

The third point goes back to an issue in the previously mentioned case where there was not an easy means of annexation since there was not a similar type of land use designation when a parcel of land was annexed to the City. It is necessary for ease of annexation that land-use regulations be written in a way that, once the boundary is moved, land use will not necessarily change.

Finally, the issue of transitions is important. Transitions have to be made in a permanent way, but often this involves a need for the extension of services. Some services have gone through unannexed areas to a more distant annexed area, because most cities don't develop in an absolutely regular way. This happens because it is inefficient, for example, to carry the service line around a curve, instead of across the curve. Also, there are situations where it is necessary to deal with readily available services, which may have an effect upon the way annexations are handled.

Lastly, I want to speak about environmental preservation as it is seen from a land owner's point of view. I am in a situation where I have some very environmentally valuable land, which we purchased in 1960. In 1970, the University of Colorado's Geology Department did studies validating the environmental value of our property and five other properties, calling them "natural areas." My area became known as the White Rocks Natural Area. In 1972, a gravel company wanted to mine the area immediately to the east of my property. They were planning to mine right up to the edge of the rocks. It is an area with cliffs and riparian woodland. It was necessary to get a coalition of people from environmental groups and people from five departments of the University, each of which had, at one time or another, done research projects in the area, to make presentations to the County Commissioners. We did not want to stop the mining. This is another essential point to citizen advocacy. You have to know what is reasonable to ask. It is not reasonable to say "don't mine the gravel." It is reasonable to say, "keep a thousand feet from White Rocks. Preserve the riparian area. Do not channelize Boulder Creek. When you leave, don't leave square ponds all the same depth. Leave ponds that have a somewhat realistic, naturalistic edge. Make plantings around them; make them different depths so that you have different kinds of wildlife that will be accommodated in those ponds." We fought very hard on this issue, and succeeded in having Flatirons Gravel Company restore the area properly, which has won them international prizes. This is the kind of thing that citizens can do.

The federal government entered into the White Rocks area about six years later when there was an attempt to designate it as a national natural landmark, something which I was very enthusiastic about. It was not to be, because the federal regulations were such that it was not possible to designate part of an area (I only own two-thirds of the White Rocks, the other third is owned by the party who sold the gravel rights to Flatirons). So, because the whole area could not be designated, they refused to designate any of it.

However, about that time, I began working with other people who were trying to get legislation into the state system, whereby there would be a natural areas program. I helped with the actual wording of the legislation that set up the Natural Areas Council. The White Rocks Natural Area became one of the first group of four to be designated under that program.

Over a long period of time, we got every kind of protection that we could for this land through political processes. We got it designated as a natural area by both the County and the City. It was designated a natural area by the University of Colorado, and designated as a natural area by the state. The federal government would have designated it as such (it is still on record as being something they would accept any time the other landowners are willing to add their land to it) had it been intact. So, as you can see, it is possible for a citizen to get the help of the political bodies and preserve something.


1 From Penelope Canan's talk, CRC Working Paper #93-16.