Some Durango residents have criticized city government for not adhering to the will of the people; City Councilor Melissa Youssef acknowledged as much in her first address as mayor.
But city officials said the city is in constant, two-way communication with residents: “We do a great job, but we have a lot of room for improvement,” said Amber Blake, assistant city manager.
City Council is prepared to take on that challenge, Youssef said. Councilors must tackle the issue by making themselves available for direct communication with the public when residents have concerns or feedback about policies, Youssef said.
“I think all of this ability to work on rebuilding trust starts with direct communication with your City Council. Direct, meaning we basically report to the electorate,” Youssef said. “Direct contact to council is something we really want to encourage.”
That desire for direct contact extends to city advisory boards, too, Youssef said. The council has liaisons to particular advisory groups, but in some cases, the lines of communication broke down, Youssef said.
“We work hard with these advisory board members,” she said. “People are passionate and may have levels of expertise, and we want to make sure we have access to them.”
The council also must make its meetings more welcoming, Youssef said. Residents need to feel welcome when they walk into City Hall, she said, and listening to people and giving credence to their ideas in decision-making will make people feel their voices are heard, considered and respected.
And soliciting those people shouldn’t be too difficult, Blake said. Durango has an “extremely engaged public,” she said. People want to participate and make their voices heard. The best way to embolden those voices is to help residents understand the public process so they know when, and how, to address their comments to councilors.
If people understand the process, it makes for better communication, she said.
“People don’t like to waste their time,” Blake said. “They want to make sure input is useful.”
Part of ensuring resident input is useful is active listening, Youssef said. In the discussions she has had with other city councilors since the new board was seated last week, Youssef said she is confident she and her fellow policymakers will take time to hear all ideas and decide what is best for the community.
“Our job is to actively listen, not reactively listen, to understand what they’re saying and the different points of view,” Youssef said.
The difficult part of engaging with the community is meeting those residents who may work two or three jobs to support their family. That person often doesn’t have time to come to a listening session or advisory board meeting – they are too busy with their own lives. And Youssef recognized that.
One precedent Youssef said she’d like to continue are City Council listening sessions. After a tax increase failed by more than 20 percent in 2018, Blake organized a series of listening sessions to engage with residents. While listening sessions are helpful, they are also fallible: They often draw the same people time and again who end up dominating the conversation.
New councilors have brought new perspectives to the board, Youssef said. As with any turnover in City Council, new members often have an openness and willingness to approach issues differently, she said. And the two new councilors – Kim Baxter and Barbara Noseworthy – are particularly equipped for engagement after knocking on thousands of residents’ doors during the campaign. Baxter and Noseworthy likely met some of those individuals who don’t participate often, giving them insight other councilors may not have.
And while Youssef has some ideas about how to improve engagement with the community, her suggestions are just that: an idea. City Council operates as a five-person board, and the authority it has comes from its tribunal nature. Youssef said she has spoken with some city councilors, but open meetings laws restrict the amount of coordination that can happen outside of a public meeting.
“This is going to be our overarching theme and goal of the year: working to rebuild trust,” she said. “We really work to listen to understand what citizens of Durango have to say so we can fully represent the points of view going forward.”