Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 1 of 3


In the coming week I will discuss, in a several part series, why our board and commission process, from public outreach to voting, is deeply deeply flawed. It is so flawed, in fact, that it’s impressive our boards and commissions have any diversity, but homogeneity isn’t as far off as you may think.

Today I’d like you to take a look at the commission and board data I collected from the 2016-2017 year. Names were removed to protect privacy (even though this is all public information, which I’m happy to share for the doubters among us), and the points on the map are congregating in a general location so as to keep home addresses private. It is also important to note that ‘home value’ is actually ‘assessed value’, which means housing values are only around 85% of the true value. I’ve chosen to stick with the assessed numbers, for consistency and for reasons that will be come clear in later posts.

Town Meeting Day Brings A Toothless Housing Ballot Item

Last March, as cofounder of Fight for 15 Burlington, I helped city councilors put a nonbinding question on the ballot. At the time, I was incredibly proud – being able to affect such change, to help bring a better living standard to so many of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I was told that while the ballot question was incredibly vague and had no enforcement, it would help move the conversation forward on the state level.

Those arguments sounded good – and nearly every councilor voted for it, except the Republican and Republican/Democrat. It helped not only the progressive (small p) city councilors running for election and reelection, but even some of the Democratic councilors. And why not support it? No one had to make any concrete plans or promises, they didn’t have to take any political risks. Even Mayor Weinberger, although at first opposed, eventually came around to supporting the ballot item, likely because he also recognized how toothless and free of political risk the question was.

As the months went by, I thought that even though the ballot item was nonbinding, since it was supported by 75% of voters that Progressive councilors and Councilor Shannon (a vocal booster of the question) would recognize that there were concrete steps they could take in the following months while waiting for the state to raise the minimum wage. They could have expanded the livable wage ordinance, got rid of all the exemptions, could have taxed businesses over a certain size that don’t pay a livable wage, or at the very least had a public conversation about this on the local level. What did those councilors end up doing? Nothing.

In retrospect, while I felt embarrassed to have my name associated with pointless feelgood measures, it was an important learning lesson. When a ballot item or ordinance is supported by a majority of councilors, especially when supported by councilors who tend to be fairly fiscally or socially conservative, that is a good sign that the bill has no purpose, no teeth, and is really just meant for local politicians to look good without having to take any political risks.

So is the case with the new housing ballot item, and it may be no coincidence that just like the $15 ballot item, Councilor Knodell was the one to introduce it.

“Shall the voters of the city of Burlington in order to help the city’s nonprofit housing organizations build more affordable housing throughout the city, advise the city council to identify and adopt progressive local option revenues, the proceeds of which shall be used exclusively to benefit the city’s housing trust fund?”

During Monday’s council meeting, the question was changed to strike the specific tax language in lieu of the looser “local option revenues.” It passed on a vote of 9-3, with Councilors Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, Dave Hartnett, I-North District, and Joan Shannon, D-South District, opposed.”

The only way I can see this ballot item having merit is if those who voted in favor of it promise, if citizens support it, to follow through. I’d love to be made wrong on this one.

Phil Scott – Vermont’s Second-Home Worried Governor

 

“Many folks on fixed incomes what {want} to stay here in Vermont and can’t afford that second home elsewhere,” Scott said. “They deserve, as much as anyone, to live with the dignity in retirement they earned through a lifetime of work.”

Retired Vermonters on fixed incomes shouldn’t be paying taxes on their social security, especially if they are living in or near poverty, are renters, or owe a lot of debt on their home. But it sure seems strange for Phil Scott to focus on Vermonters who own second homes, most of whom probably are making more than a household $70,000 a year. It’s hard enough to live in Vermont on that combined salary, nevermind pay property taxes, insurance, upkeep, travel expenses on a second home. 60% of Burlington residents own 0 homes, never-mind 2.

Here’s the other kicker – $6.1 million dollars a year, for 35,000 retirees, means they will save on average $174 a year. Please show me someone who owns a vacation home and is leaving the state to save $174 a year. That must be one small second home, and one really tight budget.

Burlington’s Fishy Private Marina Process

Please do not excuse the pun – little do you know I get paid by the pun.
There was a PIAP (public investment action plan) that occurred a couple years ago when the city wanted to redevelop parts of the waterfront. I remember reading about the details and finding a couple points that just didn’t quite add up.
1) The PIAP was won by private developers Burlington Harbor LLC, a group made up of three folks, one of whom is Chuck DesLauriers, co-owner of Hotel Vermont. Hotel Vermont was designed by architects at Truex and Cullins. The chair of the PIAP process? Bill Truex.
2) The private PIAP got a final score of 79, while the public marina scored 78.8, and I have been unable to find how they were scored. That’s so close for comfort, one would hope that every aspect of that grading process would be as transparent and open to the public as possible. A records request may soon be in order if I cannot find those documents soon.
One would hope that local leaders would recognize that the appearance of conflict can be just as destructive as an actual conflict, but the appearance may be the least troubling aspect of this process. It turns out that 3 months after the PIAP was completed, Burlington Parks and Rec won a prestigious $1,500,000 national award from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for their rejected proposal.
This leaves us with a few really important questions: How was the PIAP process done, and did those involved in the PIAP process know that Parks and Rec had submitted a huge grant? If it was known, why wouldn’t the city wait the 3-4 months until they knew if Parks and Rec would win the grant, and factor that into their final PIAP decisions? Also, after learning that the Perkins Pier Enhancement may still be happening, what is the point of a PIAP process in the first place if the city can decide to move forward with whatever proposals they want? And lastly how, if this project was good enough to beat nearly every major city in the nation, did it manage to lose on the city level?

Burlington Needs to Hold Slumlords like Bove Accountable

The city council recently did business with local slumlord Rick Bove in overwhelming support, voting 9-3. It seems that the 70 housing codes the Bove family amassed over the past few years, did not factor into the minds of our elected leaders. The priority to build up our downtown core seems more important to our city than ensuring that working class residents can live with dignity. As our city continues to grow, now is the time to create more protections for our most vulnerable neighbors, to ensure that slumlords like Rick Bove are held responsible for their actions.

A little background is needed to understand why I would make such a bold claim against a renowned Burlington family. Over the past 4 years the Boves have amassed over 70 housing code violations on their 16 properties, not far behind notorious slumlord Soon Kwon, with one property falling into such disrepair it was condemned by the city and tenants were forced to move. According to Seven Days, in 2013 the city even held their liquor license hostage so that the Boves would pay and fix over 40 housing code violations.

Rick Bove’s response to Seven Days? “You can write whatever you like, it doesn’t matter to me.” Clearly, it also doesn’t matter to him what terrible, heartbreaking conditions his tenants live in.

At my NPA, I wanted to understand why slumlords like the Boves are given countless chances to change without any serious repercussions or consequences. While it was heartening to hear Councilor Roof admit that the Boves have been slumlords for decades, it was discomforting to know that he and other elected officials have done little (to little effect) to curb these criminal behaviors. Several councilors even stated that the ends, more housing in the city, justified the means, slumlords being encouraged to develop and own more property in Burlington.

One would think our elected officials should be doing everything in their power to discourage criminal behavior, and recognize that positive ends rarely justify destructive means.

Why are landlords allowed to have outstanding fines for so long? Why hasn’t the city council enacted and funded more vigorous protections and enforcement? What are they now going to do to start addressing a long-ignored problem?

There is some hope coming from our Code Enforcement Director, Bill Ward. He has been working with a city attorney to find ways to revoke landlords’ rental licenses when they act like slumlords and amass many fines.

While this is a really great start, now more than ever we need to ask our elected leaders to ensure all residents have stable, safe housing, and that landlords who racks up fines will be held responsible – particularly by the city taking away their rental license, and refusing to do business with them until they have made a long-term effort to change their past behavior.