How Do We Make Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative?

After my 3-part series last year on Burlington’s unrepresentative boards and commissions, I spent a good deal of time thinking about why that is the case and how we could change the process so that marginalized voices are included in our local government. This is list is neither complete nor full of the best ideas – I am after all only one privileged white male, but I hope that this can get you to think about concrete ways for our commissions to include marginalized residents. Of course, a better perspective would be to go out and ask those folks yourself.

1. Make the process as apolitical as possible.

The current process to get on a commission is a byzantine political affair where you have to apply to the position, try talking to as many city councilors as possible, then show up for an awkward interview. Then councilors from different parties then meet and trade spots on different commissions, regardless of whether the person being put forward would be the best person to offer an important and different perspective. It’s hard to tell how much the application or interview actually matters in the councilors’ minds, and it seems that the process is less about creating diverse commissions that can speak to the many diverse needs of our community and more about who is friends with whom and who is owed a favor for doing _____ for whichever party.

A very apolitical process? Make the goal of commission appointments about bringing a diverse array of marginalizes perspectives to every committee.  (It’s as if there’s a whole bunch of diversity and inclusion initiatives that the city seems to regularly forget about.) Councilors should be excluded from the application process entirely, and recuse themselves if someone they know is applying. Then, councilors should be given completed applications without names or any specific references to who the applicant is, and councilors should to vote then and there who they want on the commission, while having to explain how the applicant of their choice meets the city’s goal of diversity and inclusion. Too often commissioners know the councilors and vice versa, making it all the harder for marginalized folks to get appointed.

2. Change the application.

Change the application so it’s easy to fill out online, is marked clearly on the city website (seriously try to find the list of open commission seats and what those commissions do from the city’s homepage), doesn’t require you to tell your educational background (unless those with less education are considered marginalized voices) and doesn’t require you to write in references (a way to make the process a who’s who affair, to signal that you are part of the ‘in’ crowd).

3. Advertise open positions, and put $ behind going out into the community to recruit folks from marginalized communities.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want marginalized members of the community to apply, you need to do the work and seek them out and invite them in. This won’t be perfect, especially if folks don’t get on commissions the first time, but there’s clearly a need for more commissioners who aren’t wealthy and white to apply.

4. Limit the number of terms per member to 2 terms max.

Being on a commission shouldn’t be something you do for life. Unfortunately, there are no term limits in Burlington for councilors, mayors, or commissioners. One commissioner on the Parks and Rec commission has been on it for over 20 years. Get rid of the lifers so that every few years fresh perspectives can be brought in. There are lots of opportunities for others folks to stay involved, like joining the many fundraising sister organizations (Friends of Fletcher Free, Parks Foundation, etc).

5. Stop relying on private lawyers to do the work of our public lawyers, and hire more city attorneys if we don’t have enough.

When I looked at commissions in 2016 I found a startling statistic – 9 out of 21 commissions, or 43% of commissions, had at least 1 lawyer on the commission (one commission had 4!).  Too often in local government we want folks to use their legal expertise to help commissions and city departments because we don’t budget enough money for city attorneys to do that work for us. It’s an argument that was heard often around Burlington Telecom, particularly from one elected official who is also a lawyer, Councilor Mason.

As the only attorney on the Burlington City Council, Mason regularly draws on his legal experience. During discussions over issues like new contracts or constitutional litigation, he knows the right questions to ask, guiding other councilors through the process.

The city, nor councilors, should be relying on free private lawyers to do legal work for the city, including councilors or commissioners who are also lawyers. That’s what paid professionals are for.

6. Civilian commissions need to be treated like civilian commissions.

Another big problem with many of the boards and commissions, particularly those with the most financial influence and power, are the strict limitations of who can be on those commissions. It makes sense that 1 person on the Church Street Marketplace Commission is a Church Street business owner, but if most members have to be business owners, that’s not a civilian commission; it’s a government-sanctioned business lobbying group. If every board is a civilian board, then nearly ANY civilian should be able to be on the board. And if citizens don’t have the necessary skills or education, then it’s the city’s job to bring commissioners up to speed, not pick from a handful of already knowledgeable residents.

The most egregious boards and commissions:


Design Advisory Board:

Members of this board must meet the following criteria:

  • “Should be residents of Burlington,” but at least a majority of the Board must be Burlington residents, 24 VSA 4433;
  • A majority of the members shall be professionals from any of the following fields: architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, planning, contracting, archaeology, or real estate development;
  • To the extent possible, at least two (2) of the members shall be professionals from the disciplines of history, architectural history, architecture or historical architecture.

Church Street Marketplace:

Members of this board must meet the following criteria:

  • All nine must be legal voters of the State of Vermont
  • Not less than five must be legal voters of the City of Burlington;
  • No more than four of the commissioners shall be from the same political party;
  • Two members must be proprietors or managers of retail businesses that are within the Church Street Marketplace District, but do not need to be residents of Burlington;
  • Two members must be proprietors or managers of retail businesses that are within the downtown improvement district, one of them being located within the downtown improvement district but outside the boundaries of the Church Street Marketplace, but do not need to be residents of Burlington

The Conservation Board: 

Members of this board must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a resident of the City of Burlington;
  • Have a demonstrated commitment to environmental conservation;
  • Individuals with training and experience in the following areas will be represented if at all possible: environmental law, environmental science, civil engineering, and natural resource planning.

7. Even without limitations, powerful boards and commissions can still easily become heterogeneous, stacked with wealthier and more powerful residents, without clear guidance.

Development Review Board:

Members of this board must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a resident of the City of Burlington. 

For some reason, even though this is the only requirement, the 2016 board consisted of: 4 Lawyer, 3 Architects, 2 Real Estate professionals, 1 Government worker. 

 

Planning Commission:

Members of this board must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a resident of the City of Burlington;
  • No more than two-thirds of the members of this board shall be from the same political party.

The 2016 commission was made up of: 2 Lawyers, 1 Environmentalist, 1 UVM employee, 1 VEIC employee, 1 Real Estate professional, 1 Banking professional.

Burlington’s Livable Wage Ordinance Needs Major Updating

Burlington’s livable wage ordinance, a 17-year old lofty goal, has not lived up to its intentions or expectations. Started in 2001 to give city workers and contractors hired by the city a livable wage, the ordinance was most recently updated in 2014 when the city identified lax enforcement of the ordinance, while also slightly widening the number of employees affected by the ordinance, two steps in the right direction. Unfortunately oversight wouldn’t begin for atleast another 3 years, a gap that belies a recent article about Burlington cracking down on ordinance violators. The livable wage ordinance not only needs improvement so that Skinny Pancake (8+ locations!) and other service workers at the airport are paid a decent wage, but also needs to be updated to reflect skyrocketing housing costs, childcare costs, medical costs, and rising student debt among other rising costs of living.

Consider this: in 2009, when the city first included different wages for those with and without health benefits, the livable wage was $13.94/h ($29,000 a year) and $15.83/h ($33,000 a year) respectively. How does the city decide this number? It seems that the city uses the state calculations of a livable wage for two adults  sharing a 2 bedroom apartment with no children, which results in lower hourly wages.

The current livable wage, 9 years later in 2018, is $14.24/h  ($29,619 a year) with employer assisted health insurance, and $15.83/h ($32,926) without, a difference of only $3,300 a year. So the livable wage has gone up by a paltry thirty cents an hour over the course of 9 years, a yearly increase of 3/10 of 1%, while the livable wage without benefits has remained flat. On top of this, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if those 2009 wages were tied to inflation they would $16.48/h and 18.71/h respectively in today’s dollars. (A high in 2007 dollars of $13.94 would equate to $17.19/h today for jobs without health benefits.) When we also consider that the cheapest plan on the health exchange in 2018 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont costs $5,800 a year (with a prohibitively high deductible), even the difference in livable wages does not reflect the reality of current healthcare costs.

The good news is that on July 1st, 2018 the livable wage ordinance will move significantly upwards for the first time in nearly a decade, to $14.52/h ($30,200 a year) and $16.20/h ($33,700), with and without health benefits respectively, or a $1200 and $700 increase over 10 years. Unfortunately, even the higher of these two numbers does not reflect true cost of living in Burlington. A Redstone or Bissonnette 2 bedroom apartment costs around $1700 a month, and with utilities about about $11,000 a year per person (1 person per bedroom). For those rent prices to be considered affordable (spending no more than 30% of one’s pretaxed income on housing), livable wages would need to be a minimum of $17.80 an hour WITH benefits, and that’s not considering the livable wage for single parents, 2-parent households with multiple children, etc.

I know from personal experience that the current livable wage ends up being a sustenance wage for full-time workers. This year I was making about $16.20/h, the city’s livable wage without health benefits, and I had fairly generous health, sick, and vacation benefits. I don’t own a car, I split rent (over-crowd) with two other full-time working professionals in a 2-bedroom apartment close to downtown. Yet I still struggle to pay all my bills ( $300 a month in student loans – thanks UVM!), to go to the doctor or take care of my mental health in a timely fashion because I’m worried about how much I will have to spend out of pocket (thanks high deductibles). I try to save a few thousand dollars in case of an emergency, but as I near 30 years old I haven’t put away money for retirement in 6 years and would need to rely on loved ones if a single major accident occurred. It really stretches the meaning of the world ‘livable’.

It’s time for our livable wage ordinance to not only remove all exemptions, but for the wage to be updated to reflect the true cost of living in Burlington. The wage should reflect the intent of the ordinance, otherwise it will continue to fall far short of meet the needs of city workers:

(a) Income from full-time work should be sufficient to meet an individual’s basic needs;
(b) The City of Burlington is committed to ensuring that its employees have an opportunity for a decent quality of life and are compensated, and such that they are not dependent on public assistance, to meet their basic needs.

Is it a livable wage if you’re constantly stressed about money, don’t have a retirement, live in over-crowded apartments, and rely on multiple public and private organizations for financial assistance?