Burlington mayor’s race turns to trust and skate park funding

Burlington City Hall. VTD/Josh Larkin

Burlington City Hall. VTD/Josh Larkin

With resumption of the Burlington Democratic Caucus only days away, the current focus of the city’s mayoral race is on reaching and persuading as many of the 1,309 people who participated in part one last month. But two candidates, Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright, are also in general election mode, targeting how city business is conducted under the current administration.

At a press conference in City Hall auditorium on Tuesday, Weinberger discussed his plan to improve communication, review how finances and department work is handled, and bring in a new leadership team. Although he does not agree with those who want to “clean house,” Weinberger acknowledged that there will probably be some new department heads if he wins.

On Sunday, Dec. 11, he faces State Sen. Tim Ashe in afternoon caucus voting at Memorial Auditorium to determine the Democrats’ nominee.

Shortly after that vote, possibly even before a winner is announced, the local Progressive Party will meet at the H.O. Wheeler School to select their candidates for the City Council — and possibly mayor.

On Nov. 30, two-term Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss announced that he won’t seek re-election. According to party leaders, he likely would not have won the party’s nod anyway. The question that faces Progressives now is whether to field a candidate, especially if Ashe, who served as a Progressive member of the City Council before winning as a Democrat/Progressive candidate in two senate races, is not the Democratic nominee.

Wright is not waiting to make some political points. More than a month ago, in the midst of the Democratic primary race, he proposed the sale of the Burlington Electric Department.

On Monday night, he joined other Republicans on the Council, along with two Democrats and an Independent, to successfully challenge the funding source for proposed improvement of the city’s skate park. In a preview of his campaign, Wright cast himself as a park supporter who is attempting to bring more financial prudence into the discussion and make sure all residents feel fairly represented.

Wright and other councilors who want a search for different funding insist that they are not attempting to derail or delay the park overhaul. On the other hand, Wright also said, “Citizens have felt that they haven’t been represented. That’s what this resolution is about.”

Before the vote, Democrat Ed Adrian called the resolution a “politically charged” move that “wasted two hours.”

After an hour-long debate, the proposal, sponsored by Democrat David Hartnett and the Council’s three Republican members, passed with the backing of Bram Kranichfeld, one of the Democratic mayoral candidates eliminated in the early rounds of caucus voting, and Karen Paul, who is rumored to be considering an Independent run if Weinberger loses the Democratic nod. Board President Bill Keogh, also a Democrat, broke a 6-6 tie.

Commenting on the decision the next morning, Weinberger declined to “second guess” whether Penny for Parks funding should be reconsidered, while adding that he has heard some local discontent. Nevertheless, he said that “some issues should not be controversial,” arguing that the underlying problem is the current political environment.

“Even an initiative that should have broad support can become highly controversial,” he pointed out. Flanked by campaign interns, City Councilor Norm Blais, a Democrat who opposed the resolution, State Rep. Kesha Ram, and Will Wiquist, a former press secretary for US Senator Bernie Sanders, he repeated his frequent assessment that the root of the problem is “a lack of trust.”

The outcome of the Council vote was due, in part, to the absence of the council’s second Progressive member, Vince Brennan, who was called away due to a family issue. Outside the auditorium afterward, park supporters promised to return in two weeks for the follow up discussion.

The pace quickens as the plot thickens

In Burlington politics these days, a lot can happen in two weeks. This Friday at 4:30 p.m., Shay Totten, who last week announced his impending departure from Seven Days, will moderate a discussion between Ashe and Weinberger at Main Street Landing on issues affecting city workers and the labor movement.

Burlington mayoral candidates Tim Ashe, left, and Miro Weinberger.

Burlington mayoral candidates Tim Ashe, left, and Miro Weinberger.

Ashe has significant union support, including the endorsement of United Professions AFT Vermont, which represents 3,000 teachers, nurses and other healthcare workers at UVM and Fletcher Allen Hospital.

On Sunday morning, before the caucus, the two Democrats will appear on the WCAX show, “You Can Quote Me.” In between public appearances, both are trying to personally reach as many of those 1,300 qualified caucus-goers as possible.

The Democrats reconvene at 1 p.m., with registration and voting until 4 p.m. Only residents who registered to vote on Nov. 13 can participate. The Progressive Caucus begins at 5 with a potluck supper, followed around 6 with nominations for city council and resolution of the party’s mayoral conundrum. Anyone can attend.

Four days later, on Dec. 15, the Vermont House Committee on Government Operations will hold a public hearing at Burlington High School on reapportionment of House districts to reflect population shifts revealed by the 2010 US Census. Changes are proposed to districts covering Colchester, South Burlington and Winooski.

Since the Burlington Board of Civil Authority has rejected a state plan to create 10 single-member districts for the city, the state Apportionment Board has sidestepped the issue, instead proposing simply that 10 House members represent Burlington.

By the time the City Council meets again on Dec. 19, the general election campaign for mayor will be well under way. In addition to renewed debate about the skate park, the city’s legislators will try to handle any other charter changes planned for the March ballot. In January, a public hearing will be held on proposed amendments they approve.

In comparison to what lies ahead, last Monday’s session was relatively peaceful. The proposed ballot item for a new downtown Tax Incremental Financing district won what is known locally as “tri-partisan support.” If approved by voters, it will allow city officials to obligate up to $10 million “by pledging the credit of the city” for downtown public improvements designed to generate tax revenue.

Although there was no debate and support for the idea was unanimous, some Council members voiced concern about public perceptions and asked Community and Economic Development Office staff how they plan to explain TIF to the public. “This is not a vote to incur debt,” said Larry Kupferman, director of the Community and Economic Development Office, “but a tool in a toolbox.”

Equally non-controversial was a ballot item approved to exempt businesses with an appraised value of less than $45,000 from personal property taxes.

But there is likely to be some disagreement on Dec. 19, not only over skate park funding but also on an advisory referendum introduced by Councilor Brennan. Due to his absence Monday, discussion was postponed.

The item Brennan has proposed, although non-binding, would advise the City Council to prepare a charter amendment extending voting rights to any non-citizen who has been a city or state resident “for a number of years.” In other words, it asks the City Council and Burlington voters to take a stand on one of the hottest issues of the day – immigration.

According to Totten, Brennan is also thinking about entering the mayor’s race.

The skate park hits a funding snag

During an extended public comment period before the skate park funding vote on Monday, dozens of supporters urged them to stick with $150,000 in proposed funding from Penny for Parks, a 1-cent tax to maintain, upgrade and replace Burlington facilities. The current skate park is in serious need of repair; skateboarders say it is outdated and dangerous.

But replacing it could cost between $400,000 and $940,000, according to city estimates. As a result, some people question the funding source and how the administration handles this and other spending priorities.

Skateboarders, their supporters and family members also packed City Hall in November to urge that the City Council to use the $150,000 toward a new world class, concrete skate park as part of the city’s Waterfront North project. Not everyone is enthusiastic, however. Residents living near the park have filed a lawsuit, hoping to delay construction or influence the final design.

Backers of the skate park resolution, which says that city officials should look for a new revenue source and report back at the council’s Dec. 19 meeting, claim that they are trying to make the best use of Penny for Parks money. Hartnett noted that no other allocation is more than $50,000. “Not to look is inexcusable,” he said.

Progressive Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak acknowledged that the process for selecting projects could use some improvement but pointed to previous council actions in support of the skate park. Blais agreed, noting that consistency in voting builds public confidence. He called the debate “a real puzzlement,” then asked, “Why is this going on?”

According to Democrat Joan Shannon, one recent email she received featured the charge that Democrats intended to “block vote” for the resolution. “No one asked me,” she responded. “We want to please the public,” Shannon added, “but in reality there won’t be a new funding source.”

A shift in the discussion occurred, however, when Kranichfeld opined that there was “nothing wrong with merely investigating” and proposed some new wording. Paul thanked him and agreed, adding that “there are other places where the Skate Park could receive funding.”

The vote had just become a tie.

At this point, Mayor Kiss, who often stays silent during council debates, argued that if the city is looking for alternative sources to fund this project, “we should also look for new funding for other projects. We have other pressures and projects that don’t fall under Penny for Parks.”

Wright pressed on, insisting that concerns about the way the decision was made are reason enough to “take a step back.” Responding to a claim by other council members that no other source of money can be found, especially in two weeks, he turned to Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Richard Goodwin, seated a few feet behind him.

Putting Goodwin on the spot, Wright mentioned a talk they had and asked whether Goodwin could “come up with other sources to consider.”

Visibly uncomfortable, Goodwin replied with a single word: “Yes.” Asked to explain further, he added, “Yes, I will look. But no, I have not identified a source.”

Greg Guma

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