New rules for democracy debated at Burlington City Hall

Burlington City Hall. VTD/Josh Larkin

Burlington City Hall. VTD/Josh Larkin

Two groups with youthful passion but different missions converged Monday night on City Hall in Burlington.

Dozens of local skateboarders, along with supporters and family members, packed the auditorium to urge that the City Council fund a new world class, concrete skate park on the waterfront. Standing and sitting among them were participants in the local Occupy movement, there to explain why they have decided to fight economic tyranny by setting up camp in the park less than 50 feet from the city building.

For more than an hour, councilors listened quietly, and mostly without comment, as dozens of people spoke during what Progressive Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak later called “the most democratic part of our meeting,” the public forum period set aside at each session.

But the most spirited debate of the evening came after the comments ended and most of the public had left. It also concerned the exercise of democracy — in this case the rules by which the city’s legislative branch operates.

In a tweet to followers, Councilor Ed Adrian, a Democrat, explained one of his concerns: “Tonight may be the last night I can tweet during the BTVCC public forum. Going back to cans and smoke signals.” He was referring to a proposed rule change that would have prohibited the use of any electronic devices by members of the council during public forums.

The 14-page resolution amending the council’s rules and regulations included dozens of changes developed by the Rules Committee. Many were non-controversial housekeeping matters, with wording that reflects a new job title or schedule, revised reporting requirements and meeting reorganization. But some changes focused on Council decorum and the balance of power with the executive branch of government.

In a section on committee assignments, for example, one revision proposed shifting the power to “designate which department or office of the city is to provide staffing for standing or ad hoc committees” from the council to the chief administrative officer. Adrian objected to what he saw as “ceding power to the administration.”

The council defeated his proposal to let committees and councilors assign small amounts of work to departments, as long as the time and money are strictly limited. Under the new rules adopted by the council, committees can’t assign or even request that “significant assignments be carried out by city departments” without the entire council’s approval.

A proposed change that attracted particularly intense comments read, “Councilors are encouraged to stay in their seat during public forum except in emergencies.” Adrian called this an attempt to legislative behavior.

Kurt Wright, a Republican candidate for mayor and member of the Rules Committee, replied that the behavior was only being “encouraged” and the intent was to “show the public we are listening.” Bram Kranichfeld, one of four Democrats competing to run against Wright, disagreed with him, arguing that “this ought to be between the councilor and his constituents.”

Adrian also took aim at Sec. 21, a new provision on electronic devices. The proposal was that all such devices “used by councilors, the public and others present shall be silenced (i.e. turned off or put on ‘vibrate’) during council meetings. Councilors shall not use electronic devices during a public forum.”

This led to an extended discussion of whether officials can concentrate on what members of the public are saying if they are tweeting, texting, reviewing their email, conducting online research, or even taking notes. For some, it was a matter of respect for the public; for others, an attempt to control individual behavior that would not work.

Some members of the council use laptop computers or electronic devices during sessions. But no one on the board tweets as frequently or forcefully as Adrian. On Monday, he sent out 34 tweets in three hours during the meeting, commenting on speakers at the forum, responding to friends and constituents and thanking people for their comments. At times, he also issued pointed comments about fellow members of the council.

During the rules debate, for example, he retweeted a question from columnist Shay Totten, “So the Q becomes, will @KurtWright2012 call cops if councilors tweet during #BTVCC public hearing?” A few minutes later he retweeted at Mulvaney-Stanak: “glad to see you are proxying for Councilor Bushor.”

After the restriction on electronics was defeated in a 7-6 vote, he let followers know, then took a last shot at Wright, retweeting a comment, “seems like a man with something to hide.” Adrian’s larger point, demonstrated by the fact that all the tweets did not prevent him from winning three of the six votes on his amendments, is that “people should not make assumptions about what people are or are not absorbing.”

His last tweet of the night returned to the visit by protesters encamped behind City Hall. “Think we should get the #OccupyVermont folks a Port-O-Let,” he suggested.

Occupy city council?

Those who came in from the park to address the officials had other matters on their minds. In fact, they developed a statement beforehand and, despite a public forum rule by Council President Bill Keogh that limited each person to 90 seconds, they managed to read the entire text in several installments.

Occupy Vermont protesters

File photo of Occupy Vermont protestors marching in front of Burlington City Hall. Photo by Greg Guma.

“Mike Check,” the first speaker shouted, signaling that the group intended to employ the human loudspeaker approach at the core of the movement’s approach to participation. Although the technique was eventually abandoned, one speaker suggested that its use inside City Hall – despite decent acoustics and the presence of microphones – was designed “to show our power.”

Speakers talked about unjust economic policies, environmental threats, and the concentration of wealth by an “elite minority,” and advised that “something strange and beautiful is happening in City Hall Park.” Since the occupiers have been providing food and support for homeless people who also use the space, local activist James Leas and others urged the Council to provide more support “while we cultivate a new world.”

One person issued a warning, however. “We want radical change and we want it soon,” he said. The bottom line, delivered by the last spokesperson for the group, was a movement refrain: “This is what democracy looks like.”

Skating into the budget

Skate park supporters used a different approach: dozens of speakers, from a four-year-old to teenagers, parents and veteran skateboarders, each speaking spontaneously and from the heart. They talked about how skateboarding has changed their lives and thanked the council in advance for what they hope to see: funding for a new park to replace one on the waterfront now in need of serious repair. It could cost between $400,000 and $940,000, according to city estimates.

The council has approved the use of funds from “Penny for Parks,” a 1-cent tax to maintain, upgrade and replace Burlington facilities, and has included $150,000 in a preliminary budget.

Not everyone expressed enthusiasm. Speaking for a coalition of concerned neighbors, Barbara Zucker explained that they couldn’t support expansion. Residents living near the park have filed a lawsuit, hoping to delay construction or influence the final design. But the forum also provided an opportunity for people like 24-year-old Jesse Curran to explain why the current park is hazardous and how upgrading it to concrete will actually reduce the noise.

Once the comment period ended, the auditorium emptied out and the council returned to its scheduled business, with a process driven by Robert’s Rules of Order. They had already been meeting for more than an hour, at a special City Council work session in a conference room downstairs. As usual, there were dozens of communications and resolutions on deck for their long regular session.

To deal with the crush of business, the main agenda is divided into two parts – consent and deliberative. As Section 16 in the rules explains, items on the consent agenda are considered “not controversial and are for information only.” In other words, there is no discussion. The deliberative agenda, on the other hand, has items of “such importance that they deserve discussion.”

During the amendment debate, Adrian unsuccessfully objected to a new rule that reads, “It is not appropriate to move an item from the Consent to the Deliberative Agenda to provide general information.” But he succeeded in eliminating a nearby sentence that “encouraged” council members to inquire with staff before attempting to move an item from the pro forma to the active list.

A new smart meter charge on BED bills

Among the many matters approved by consent last Monday was one resolution likely to have a financial impact on some local residents. In adopting a series of amendments to Burlington Electric Department’s Operating Guidelines, the council also added an additional monthly service charge for any customer who wants to opt out of the new wireless Smart Meters that BED will soon install throughout the city.

According to BED General Manager Barbara Grimes, local action was required by the Public Service Board. Although the written policy doesn’t mention a specific amount, Grimes revealed that Burlington plans to charge $7.50, less than the $10 request filed with the PBS by Central Vermont Public Service Corp.

“We’ll give our customers 45 days to think it over,” she said. Once the new meters are providing information on usage, she expects all the utility companies to re-examine their rate structures. “In the long run customers should see benefits with time and use rates,” she added, and promised that no additional charges will be added to the opt-out fee.

The reason such an issue wasn’t on the deliberative agenda, Grimes explained, is not only because the voters approved Smart Grid last spring. Beyond that, it has also been discussed at neighborhood planning assemblies, another feature of Burlington democracy.

“We were at the NPAs more than once,” she recalled, acknowledging that the department has heard some concerns about civil liberties, privacy and cyber security. But the PSB wanted the opt out issue resolved first, she explained.

On privacy, “we’ve taken the ACLU’s concerns very seriously,” Grimes said. “We realize that since 9/11 the feds have used their powers to get cell phone records, for example. But the only way we’ll give anyone or any agency your information is under a court order or other legal documents,” she assured, adding “we’ve always protected our customers’ information.”

Greg Guma

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