Durango City Council challenged municipal policies and practices at its annual retreat this month, a conversation city leaders described in retrospect as contentious, productive and unfinished.
High-level city staff and city councilors meet every year in what’s called the City Council retreat to discuss priorities, orient new council members and explore what direction the five-person board wants to take the city.
It’s a time for city leadership to discuss objectives, review policies and establish a set of goals from which city staff will take direction when planning for the future of the many municipal departments.
But this year’s meeting, held Thursday and Friday at the Durango Community Recreation Center, never got to a point where city leaders set goals. The board spent most of its time examining best management and financial practices, how to better address the issue of homelessness in the community and the functional communication between city advisory boards and commissions and the City Council.
“The way I’m describing it is productive and difficult,” said Durango Mayor Melissa Youssef. “Productive because we had clarity and agreement on key issues that needed to be addressed. Difficult because we brought forward changes to bring improvements. Modifying current policies and practices creates tension. People get comfortable where they are and it makes it difficult.”
New councilor Kim Baxter said she had three takeaways from the retreat: Things are worse than she thought they were; the council decided to move forward in a positive manner; and the effectiveness of the retreat will be determined by outcomes in coming months.
Barbara Noseworthy, also elected in April, said she understood that the council agreed to hold public meetings on Wednesday afternoons to dig into different subjects. It was also the first time Noseworthy and Baxter had to really get to know their fellow councilors, an important part of the process, she said.
Councilor Chris Bettin echoed appreciation for time spent getting acquainted with new council members. “They’re drinking from a fire hose,” Bettin said of Noseworthy and Baxter’s introduction to city policies and processes.
Councilor Dean Brookie attended the City Council retreat but did not return a call for comment.
No decision, just directionCity councilors may vote and make decisions in a noticed public meeting – but the retreat was not that. It was instead a platform for city leaders to better understand the processes that keep city government in motion and assess whether things could be done differently.
Much of the conversation at the retreat focused on the latter, Youssef said. It’s not meant as an attack on anything that had been done in the past, but more a realization that change is inevitable and necessary in an evolving city like Durango, she said.
City councilors, with the help of a facilitator, discussed establishing SMART goals for top city employees, meaning the objectives must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. City Manager Ron LeBlanc said his duties are defined in Durango’s charter, for example, but Baxter was concerned the duties do not have SMART goals attached to them.
Long-term financial planning has been front and center in City Hall for months now, punctuated by an overwhelming defeat of a tax ballot measure in November and marginal approval of a smaller tax request in April. Baxter and Noseworthy acknowledged La Plata County’s long-term finance committee as a model that might work for Durango. Youssef said councilors asked for an easy-to-understand web portal that illuminates trends and can be used to identify performance targets. Bettin said he understood the process to be transparent already but recognized that city leaders need to look for every opportunity to engage with the public about how its taxes are being spent.
Baxter said the city needs to think about the various needs in the homeless community to effectively address the issue. And all councilors are interested in the issue, requesting that staff keep them updated about the progress of a strategic plan and potential short-term actions the city could take to ease the pressure homelessness puts on the community.
Noseworthy suggested councilors think about their relationship with community boards and commissions, suggesting that the council hear more from those it appoints to advise them. Functionally, staff or a chairperson reports board decisions to the council – Noseworthy, Baxter and Youssef all asked for more direct communication, although its unclear what that might look like.
One thing that’s certain is none of them can do it on their own. Each councilor operates as part of a body, and power is exclusively reserved for that body. But it’s important to know expectations, especially when facing difficult decisions, Youssef said.
“It starts with bringing thoughts to the table – we talked a lot about coming to the table with an open mind and a willingness to listen and not having committed positions before we enter a room, listen to councilors so we understand each position, and respectfully having discussions, and commitment to support that group vote to ultimately get us to shared goals and results,” Youssef said. “That’s a difficult job with any group, we don’t all agree but we all have to recognize that we represent one council and one community.”