Burlington City Council adds F-35 question to March ballot

[B]URLINGTON — During a passionate and packed council meeting, councilors voted, many out of fear of an imminent lawsuit, to add a question to the March ballot asking voters if they want F-35 warplanes to come to Burlington.

Activists with Save Our Skies have been working for months to put the issue of whether to add the non-binding question to Burlington’s March ballot.

Should the voters approve the measure, it would direct the Burlington City Council to oppose the notoriously noisy jets, and request quieter aircraft.

The secretary of the Air Force has selected the Burlington Air National Guard Base for the F-35 basing, and the military is scheduled to begin replacing the current fleet of 18 F-16 aircraft with new F-35s as early as next year, according to the Guard.

The council was put in an awkward position. Many on the council feel that the question of whether or not the F-35’s should come to Burlington has already been litigated — the F-35 debate came to a head in Burlington several years ago, when during a 2013 council meeting the council defeated two anti-F-35 resolutions.

However, legal uncertainty over a recent court case in South Burlington gave the council no choice but to accept the petition language.

In South Burlington, residents fighting a school board decision to change the South Burlington High School sports teams from the “Rebels” to the “Wolves” organized a petition to force a public vote on the change. Though opponents of the name change gathered 5 percent of voters’ signatures, the School Board declined to take up the issue again.

In December, Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Mello ruled that a lawsuit, brought by residents over the board refusal to put the question to a vote, could go forward. The ruling suggests that the court could force the School Board to put the question of the team name directly before the voters, and that any government body in Vermont that denies a similar petition could be running afoul of the Vermont Constitution.

That ruling has now been appealed, and is pending before the Vermont Supreme Court. City Attorney Eileen Blackwood advised councilors to put the question on the ballot because the courts have yet to make a decision in the South Burlington case.

“My advice to you all has been that, because of the fact that Judge Mello is the judge to whom the appeal from your action would go, it’s likely that Judge Mello would tell you ‘Yes, you have to put it on the ballot’,” said Blackwood.

Some councilors tried — and failed — to slightly change the language of the ballot question. The original question that was sent to the council from petitioners asks voters if they want to direct the Burlington City Council to oppose the notoriously noisy jets, and request quieter aircraft, as part of their support for the Vermont National Guard.

The F-35s will make nearly 5,500 flights per year out of Burlington — fewer than the number of F-16 flights — but they will be significantly louder than F-16s. Houses closest to the airport have been vacated and sold through a Federal Aviation Administration program that buys homes severely affected by noise pollution.

About 200 empty houses have been demolished and thousands more houses around the airport will become unlivable should the F-35s come, the Save Our Skies group has warned.

The ballot question includes a phrase about support for the Vermont National Guard that Councilor Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, found misleading.

“We have never, ever, ever, allowed editorializing language at the beginning of a ballot question,” Wright said.

Wright and Councillors Dave Hartnett, I-North District, and Jane Knodell, P-Central District, were all co-sponsors of a new ballot item that keeps the questions, but leaves out any language that could mislead voters, Wright said. He warned that allowing this type of ballot question could set a dangerous precedent.

“We are obligated to make sure that we have a question before the voters, that the voters understand what they’re voting on, and it is fair, and it is not editorialized,” Wright said.

Other councilors agreed with the sentiment of not including “editorialized” language in ballot questions, but feared that any change to the petitioners' language could invite a legal challenge.

“I do think that in light of the Mello decision, and in light of the city attorney’s advice, that this council is not in a position to be able to amend the language,” said Councilor Chip Mason, D-Ward 5.

The council approved the ballot language with no changes. Advocates of the ballot item left Contois auditorium Monday night with a sense of victory.

“I can’t believe it. I’m in shock,” said James Leas, an organizer with Save Our Skies and a South Burlington attorney.

“I came here expecting we’re just going to do the best we can,” Leas said. The group was ready to take the city to court if the ballot had been rejected or the language had been altered, Leas said.

Court documents show that if the Air Force doesn’t select Burlington to get the F-35’s, another mission will be approved.

Lt. Mikel Arcovitch, a Guard spokesman, gave reporters a statement at the outset of Monday’s meeting in which Col. Hank Harder said the Guard has been preparing for the F-35 for years, and the Guard is invested in “numerous multi-million dollar, mission critical construction projects” in preparation for the warplanes.

“Let me be crystal clear, there is no alternative mission for the Vermont Air National Guard,” Harder stated.

After Monday night’s approval, Burlington voters will see this question on the ballot in March:

“Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to ‘protect the citizens of Vermont,’ advise the City 35 Council to:

1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and

2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?”

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Cory Dawson

About Cory

Cory Dawson is VTDigger’s Burlington reporter. Before joining the VTDigger staff, Cory worked for the Associated Press, the Burlington Free Press, and served as editor-in-chief of The Vermont Cynic, the student newspaper of the University of Vermont, where he also earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. Before graduating in 2016, Cory worked as an intern at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and at VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

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