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Candidates for Burlington mayor spar on development

Kurt Wright, left, and Miro Weinberger, right, candidates for Burlington, Vt. mayor, debate at Champlain College, Sponsored by the Burlington Business Association. Photo by Stephen Mease, Champlain College.

Kurt Wright, left, and Miro Weinberger, right, candidates for Burlington, Vt. mayor, debate at Champlain College, Sponsored by the Burlington Business Association. Photo by Stephen Mease, Champlain College.

The tone was polite and tentative at the first mayoral debate between Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright. Invited to headline the 10th Annual Business Summit of the Burlington Business Association (BBA) on Thursday morning, the two candidates sounded bullish on development but held back on criticizing each other and agreed about the basic challenges of the job.

They even saw eye-to-eye about how to respond if protesters, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, attempt to re-occupy City Hall Park next spring. Citizens Bank, a target of protesters last October at its branch across from the park, was presenting sponsor of the debate.

“I took the lesson that we have rules on the books for a reason,” concluded Weinberger, referring to the decision by Mayor Bob Kiss to let Occupy Burlington protesters camp overnight in the park for almost two weeks last fall. “That is a steep, slippery slope I will not go down,” he said.

Wright mentioned the death of a 35-year-old man that abruptly ended the encampment and concluded that allowing it was the wrong strategy. “What do we say to another group, what about the Klu Klux Klan?” he wondered. “You would have a court battle.”

During a 90-minute exchange the candidates sounded their usual themes – putting Burlington’s finances back in order, restoring public trust, improving communication and increasing transparency.

Emphasizing his long-term knowledge of how city government works, earned through five terms on the City Council and two years as board president, Wright pledged to shepherd a major commercial development at the gateway to downtown on Main Street. Weinberger mentioned expansion of the city’s Business Improvement District and making sure Burlington International Airport remains “an economic driver,” emphasizing his business background and status as a City Hall outsider prepared to create change.

Decidedly absent from the debate, for the first time in 31 years, was a distinct progressive perspective on business and development issues. On Nov. 30 Kiss, the third Progressive mayor since Bernie Sanders defeated Democrat Gordon Paquette in 1981, announced that he would not seek a third term. Due to his handling of Burlington Telecom and image as a poor communicator, Progressive Party officials predicted that he probably would not have been re-nominated.

Instead, many progressives placed their hopes on Sen. Tim Ashe, who sought the Democratic nod as a fusion candidate. Ashe previously served on the City Council as a Progressive. But the Democratic field was crowded, and the November caucus ended in a tie between Ashe and Weinberger, an airport commissioner running for office for the first time.

A month later, on Dec. 11, Weinberger defeated Ashe when the Democrats reconvened. Disappointed Progressives decided to delay their decision on whether to run a candidate until Jan. 22. Wright officially became the GOP candidate the same night, his third attempt since 1999.

Miro Weinberger, an airport commissioner, says the city needs to take difficult steps toward solvency. He is one of four Democratic candidates.

After the caucuses, Vermont Progressive Party Chairwoman Martha Abbott explained why her party was still looking for a candidate. Without a Progressive in the race, she saw a choice “between a working-class Trojan horse Republican or a well meaning, untested Democrat who has not shown that he understands working class issues.”

Former Progressive Mayor Peter Clavelle is expected to endorse Weinberger, the Democrat, in a press conference on Friday.

Meanwhile, Community and Economic Development Office staffer Wanda Hines has entered the race as an independent. Although Hines, who previously ran the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, won’t publicly confirm her plans until Friday, a poster is being circulated by the Committee to Elect Wanda Hines with the slogan, “Your choice, your community.”

Hines’ entry into the race complicates matters for Progressives. Party bylaws say only a candidate who has previously run as a Progressive can be endorsed. As a result, Hines won’t be the “de facto” Progressive candidate, says Burlington vice chair Elijah Bergman. No Progressive candidate has yet emerged, although councilor Vince Brennan said in December that he was thinking it over.

Changing the culture

During the Thursday debate, Wright said that CEDO needs new leadership and “restructuring” in order to increase its focus on housing and local economic projects. Asked how he would finance developments going forward, he suggested that the clearinghouse for city development projects, created during the Sanders administration and initially led by Clavelle, could bring in some new talent, possibly using money from the city’s general fund to jump start projects.

Weinberger questioned dipping into the general fund, suggesting that a proposed downtown Tax Incremental Financing district could be an alternative that would “force the city into more collaboration” with the private sector. Local voters will decide in March whether to let the City Council obligate up to $10 million for downtown public improvements designed to generate tax revenue.

The BBA debate began at 8:30 a.m. in the Alumni Auditorium at Champlain College. Questions were submitted before and during the event by Association members, those attending and Twitter followers. After opening remarks, the first question came from Tom Leavitt, BBA Board member and Merchants Bank Vice President of Community Banking.

Leavitt asked Wright, “How would you lead us toward vitality?” By being different from Mayor Kiss, the candidate replied. (The response elicited a small laugh from the audience.) Specifically, he promised to form a “tripartisan administration.”

Kurt Wright, GOP candidate for Burlington mayor. Courtesy photo.

Kurt Wright, GOP candidate for Burlington mayor. Courtesy photo.

The only Republican from Burlington in the Vermont House of Representatives, Wright frequently argues that neither the race for mayor nor the management of the city should focus on party affiliation. He blames partisan division for delaying progress and stresses an ability to work across political lines. Last fall Wright co-sponsored a resolution to remove party labels from council and mayoral elections.

Since Weinberger has made a point of criticizing the current “company culture” in city government, the first question for him was how to change it. To implement a “new level of openness,” he offered a nuts-and-bolts approach — “top-down review of all departments,” following by more oversight and accountability going forward. “The next mayor needs to really know what’s going on throughout city,” he said.

But how much turnover would that mean? Neither candidate wanted to be pinned down on staff changes. However, Wright pointed to the Chief Administrative Officer and CEDO as prospects for change while simultaneously telegraphing that the Police and Fire Departments have nothing to fear.

Weinberger said that he “will not indiscriminately clean house,” but suggested that city leadership should include more women. “It’s surprising how few department heads are women,” he noted.

Appealing to business

Nicole Ravlin of Burlington Social Media Breakfast, which partnered with the BBA to stage the event, asked a question that underlined one difference between the candidates: How would they use technology and social media to improve services and government?

Wright acknowledged that he’s just getting acquainted with social media like Facebook, but promised to consult with experts at Champlain College. More familiar with new media, Weinberger mentioned the potential in using “see-click-fix” technology to handle local complaints. “I am stunned at how many people know about the campaign from Facebook,” he noted.

The main difference between the two candidates, however, remains the proposal floated by Wright early in the race – investigating the sale of the Burlington Electric Department as the solution to the city’s mounting debts. What’s your Plan B, he was asked, if selling BED is rejected locally?

“Let’s take one big idea at a time,” he replied, quickly pivoting to stress that he actually wants to evaluate “all our assets.” After consulting with advisors, however, Wright has concluded that selling the century-old municipal utility could net the city at least $100 million. “Let the voters decide,” he urged.

“This is an area of real difference,” Weinberger said, briefly mentioning a “five-point plan” he has circulated to stabilize city finances. He predicted that selling BED “would be a seismic event.” Although not completely ruling out the possibility, he calls it a last resort that shouldn’t even be “on the table” until many more questions are answered.

While both men are critical of how the financing of Burlington Telecom has been handled to date – Wright calls it a “debacle” – their prescriptions aren’t much different than the path the city is pursuing. Wright talked about finding a partner “with deep pockets.” Weinberger said taxpayers should be protected from any further liability while finding some way to slowly recoup the $17 million invested from the city’s cash pool. “The difference is that I bring to the office a background in putting together complex financial deals,” Weinberger argued.

“People say just shut down BT,” Wright noted. “But you don’t do that because of businesses that are here because of the fiber optic network.” Instead, like Kiss and Weinberger, he believes that the best hope remains finding “a strategic partner with the city maintaining a minority ownership.”

The best way to stimulate economic growth and help existing business is to attract new ones, Weinberger argued. But Burlington doesn’t have an “economy of a scale that is critical to overcoming the key challenge of creative economy businesses,” he thinks. “We need a more robust ecosystem.”

Wright made a direct appeal to the audience. “You are not the enemy,” he told members of the business group, suggesting that change is not only needed in city government’s culture but also in its permit system.

The candidates – including any newcomers to the race – will meet again on Jan. 12 at the Unitarian Church to discuss transportation, mobility issues and how to make Burlington more livable for all ages. The forum, one of several from now until March 6, is sponsored by AARP Vermont and Local Motion.


Greg Guma

About Greg

Greg Guma is a longtime Vermont journalist. Starting as a Bennington Banner reporter in 1968, he was the editor of the Vanguard Press from 1978 to 1982, and published a syndicated column in the 1980s and 90s. From the mid-90s to 2004 he edited Toward Freedom, then a print magazine covering global affairs, and organized one the first Independent Media conferences, held in Burlington in 2000. In 2004, he co-founded Vermont Guardian with Shay Totten. Two years later he became CEO of Pacifica Radio. He writes about media and society on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).

Email: [email protected]

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