Some city and county governments in Colorado are tired of debate about international issues in local meetings

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
City Hall in Durango, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

Durango City Council isn't the place to consider world affairs, according to the Durango City Council.

City Councilmembers voted 3-1 on Tuesday to pass a resolution "prohibiting the consideration of legislation concerning matters of international political controversy, ideological or religious beliefs, or individual conviction."

The vote was tabled at an earlier meeting, with several residents concerned that the move essentially silenced free speech. Durango Attorney Mark Morgan explained Tuesday that was not the case. 

“A lot of people have made comments that the city is trying to limit or silence us. That's a very, very overreaching, overbroad approach, but it is very effective when you're demonstrating to try to prove a point,” Morgan said, “that is not what is happening here.” 

The move comes as other governing bodies in Colorado respond to persistent calls for action from residents concerned about international affairs in Gaza. The Greeley Tribune reported that Weld County Commissioners removed public comment from future meetings. They pointed to a recent meeting in Fort Collins which ended abruptly as residents called for a local resolution asking for a cease-fire. Conversely, Glenwood Springs City Council became the city in Colorado to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire when they did so via a unanimous vote in February.

The Durango Council’s vote served to clarify its status as a limited public forum, a legal designation that allows for the city to set guardrails on what can be discussed, their attorney said. 

“It is a choice that you have to make between being a limited public forum where you can restrict speech in a Constitutional way like you already do for time, place, and manner,” Morgan said. “You're just restricting it to city business. This has no effect on the city as a whole.” 

The limited forum status stands in contrast to alternatives that allow for more free-flowing comments. Morgan told Durango City Council that’s one reason the Fort Collins Council meetings made the news. 

“There are other places in Colorado where the charter says that you are required to have a designated part of your agenda creating a designated public forum where you cannot restrict things to city business. If you read the news articles about Fort Collins, they were unable to conduct business at that meeting because of their status as a designated public forum,” Morgan said. 

That same designation allowed Durango to shut down an entirely separate incident when virtual public comments were hijacked by speakers promoting hate speech, a tactic known as “Zoom bombing.” 

“These rules and procedures were established to allow us to react appropriately to the type of incidents that happened during the hate bombing and the antisemitism a few meetings back,” Morgan said “You'll recall that during those meetings, I very loudly said, this is a limited public forum and you are constitutionally allowed to restrict this type of speech.” 

Durango wants to offer an alternative.

Last week, the city of Durango announced they had reached out to Colorado’s congressional delegation in an attempt to facilitate a forum they said would be more appropriate for a conversation about the ongoing conflict in Gaza. 

“Our goal is to help our constituents by putting them in contact with the people who are in the best position to address their international concerns,” Mayor Melissa Youssef said in the release. “The focus of the city has always been how we can provide local services and promote opportunities for meaningful public discourse on local issues. Discussions on Mideast politics are best handled by our federal officials, who are actually in a position to take action or make policy.”

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Mayor Pro-tem Jessika Buell echoed that sentiment in explaining her vote in favor of the resolution. 

“Durango's strength lies in addressing the needs and concerns of our local community, not wading into complex international matters — matters that, I will be completely honest with you, I do not have the education or background to make policy on,” Buell said. “While we can strive to be global citizens, pronouncements on delicate affairs of this nature risk overstepping our bounds and potentially complicating existing diplomatic efforts. And then the question lies: Where do we draw the line? Do we propose resolutions about funding Ukraine? Laws that Alabama just passed about frozen embryos? Border policy? The list could go on and on and public comment could go on and on for hours.” 

Council Member Dave Woodruff was the lone vote against the measure. He said he worried about the message it sent to residents. 

“Often local government is the first connection that people have with their government at large,” he said. “If constituents feel like they're not being heard by their state or federal representatives, then this is the only mechanism they have left to give their concern a voice.”