BURLINGTON — Nearly 100 opponents of the F-35 basing rallied inside City Hall on Monday night to urge the Burlington City Council to make a decision on the fighter jet before the Air Force does.
The opponents’ campaign against the F-35 was stalled when the city attorney discovered that the council did not have public officials liability insurance for airport business. This narrow insurance policy would protect city officials from any lawsuit resulting from their decision on the F-35, city attorney Eileen Blackwood said.
The discovery last week came one day before the Air Force submitted the final Environmental Impact Statement on the possible environmental and health effects of the F-35 to the Federal Register. This marked the beginning of a mandatory minimum 30-day waiting period before the Air Force could make a decision on whether to base the jet with the Vermont Air Guard at Burlington International Airport.
Councilor Rachel Siegel, P-Ward 3, who spoke at the rally before the meeting, said the clock is ticking.
With the Air Force’s decision looming, critics of the basing in Burlington want the council to state their position on the F-35 to the Air Force, which they say is renting from the city-owned airport.
Last week, the council pulled two resolutions that would oppose the basing of the F-35, either outright or temporarily, from Monday’s meeting because of the liability issue. How long it might take the city to obtain the insurance is unclear.
Blackwood, who issued a brief update at the council meeting, said the city is working on it.
The time it takes to obtain the insurance will depend on the policy’s scope of coverage and the cost, she said before the meeting. This would determine how long city officials need to review the policy, either internally between airport officials or before the public during a council meeting.
Chris Hurd, a member of the Stop the F-35 Coalition, said the city is “prudent” to obtain insurance to protect itself. However, the council must prioritize the “health and safety of Vermonters,” he said.
Council Progressives have two resolutions in the works. One opposes the basing of the F-35. The other resolution, or “compromise” resolution, would oppose the basing in the first round, Siegel said.
Siegel said in the second round of basing, Burlington would no longer be the “guinea pig” to test the F-35, a concern that was sparked by the crash rate during the first year of the F-22, which the EIS states is similar in design to the F-35.
The city would still consider basing the F-35 in Burlington after the jet’s kinks were worked out at a safer, less-populated base, she said.
Council President Joan Shannon, D-Ward-5, said the council plans to vote on the Progressives’ resolutions during a special meeting Oct. 28. That could change, she said.
Siegel said she has heard, indirectly, that Mayor Miro Weinberger would veto a resolution to permanently oppose the resolution but would not veto the compromise resolution.
After the meeting, Weinberger said it is too early to state a position on the two resolutions because they are likely to change before they are introduced to the council.
Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, who spoke at the rally before the meeting, said the resolution will send a message to the Air Force that the city does not want to be liable for the F-35.
“If these public officials don’t want to be liable for these decisions, how then can we say that our community, that our city, should be liable for these decisions?” Tracy said. “I think that we as a city really have to send a clear message to the Air Force saying ‘no, we don’t want to be personally liable, we don’t want to be liable as a community, we don’t want to be liable as a state.”’
The Burlington Air National Guard station is still the preferred Guard alternative in line to receive 18 to 25 F-35 fighter jets to replace the current F-16s, as stated in the final EIS. The final EIS is the last assessment of the possible environmental and health consequences of basing a fleet of F-35 fighter jets at two of six proposed locations in the U.S.
During the meeting, one proponent of the F-35 defended the basing because the Vermont Air National Guard needs the most advanced equipment available. Opponents of the basing voiced concerns for health and safety, the effect on low-income residents and the jet’s presence in Vermont’s airways as a threat to the tourism industry.