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.

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

Update: I included the average and median home value of commissioners (priced to current value) compared to citywide median and average.

(If you did not get the chance to read part 1, I mapped out last year’s commissioner data to show what areas of the city commissioners come from, and in part 2 I looked at a ton of data around commissions, including housing type, housing value, profession, and gender.)

Today, I’d like to look at our boards and commissions over a series of 10 years to see if there is a correlation between Progressive and Democratic Mayors and commission representation. Using data from the 2005-06, 2011-2012, and 2016-17 years, I was able to compare commissions from the end of Mayor Clavelle’s tenure, the end of Mayor Kiss’s tenure, and 6 years into Mayor Weinberger’s tenure. Interesting data points are below.

Commissioners are more often homeowners and their houses are on average significantly wealthier, 16%-24% higher, than the city average. (Home values shown are the assessed value of said housing, which is about 85% of the full value.)

Commissioners by ward seem to be all over the place, but a few trends emerge. Wards 2 and 8, Old North End and Downtown, are chronically under-represented, while Wards 5 and 6, the South End, seem to generally have more representation than what one would expect to see, 11% representation if all wards were represented equally.

It seems that while there was a small dip during the Kiss years in regards to more economically diverse commissions, commissions are slowly climbing back up to the lack of diversity from 2006. Trends still favor relatively wealthier citizens in business and housing fields, with a decent increase in representation by the medical community. Interestingly, commissioners who may make less money, such as government workers and those working in the community/social work/education fields, seem to have lost the most ground since 2012.

While gender disparity decreased slightly under the Kiss administration, it seems to have stabilized under the Miro administration, hovering around 2/3rds of all commissioners as male.

The number of low-income renting commissioners, after climbing in 2012, has been falling since. The number of home-owning commissioners has increased steadily since 2006, while coop homeowners are only occasionally on commissions, regardless of who is mayor.

Once again, we see a small dip in the number of males on the finance and development commissions in 2012, while that number returns to 2006 levels by 2017. This is a troubling trend, as 75% of finance and development commissioners are male, meaning many voices are not being included in the decisions that have the most economic impact on all of our lives.

Why do our commissions look the way they do? I believe that the commission process at every step encourages wealthier residents to apply and to be voted onto commissions, and that the system itself, while small impacts can be made, works in a way to marginalize many members of the community. New mayors and city councilors seem to make little difference in the make up of commissions. I’d like to discuss these theories more in a final post.

Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative? Part 2 of 3

Today I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the data that I first presented in part 1. To ensure that the sample sizes were large enough, and not just the aberration of small commissions, I chose to look only at the commissions with at least 4 members.  You may be surprised by what the data reveals, I know I was.

I want to offer a few caveats – I made assumptions about folks’ genders based on their first names. While it’s certainly not 100% accurate nor good practice, the city does not seem to collect any data on gender or race when it comes to commissioners, so I worked with what I got. I also did my best to ensure that no identifying data would be presented, even though all of this information is public in one place or another.

By Ward

  • Ward 2, 3, and the gerrymandered student Ward 8 have the lowest number of commissioners, while Ward 1, 4, and 5 have the highest.
  • Ward 2 and 3 are represented on less than 50% of all commissions, while Ward 8 has barely any representation. Wards 4 and 5 are represented on 3/4ths of all commissions.
  • There are more commissioners living outside Burlington than from half the city’s individual wards, Wards 2,3,7, and 8.Note: Ward 0 denotes commissioners who live outside Burlington.


By Gender:

  • Burlington’s gender demographics are 51% female to 49% male, yet 34% of commissioners are female and 66% are male.
  • While 65% of commissions have more males than females, only 35% of commissions have more females than males.
  • The commissions involving business, development, financials, and housing skew heavily towards males, with over 80%.
  • Housing Board of Review, Design Review Board, and Retirement Board have combined 19 males on the boards and 0 females.

When we look at the commissions involving finances and development, the disparities are even starker:


By Home Owners and Renters:

  • Although 60% of Burlington residents are renters, only 14% of commissioners are renters.
  • Nearly as many commissioners live outside the city than are renters in the city.
  • Burlington’s median assessed value of a single family home is $234,200. 75% of home-owning commissioners, or 65% of all commissioners, own homes valued about the city median.
  • Every commission had a higher average home value than the median.
  • While 100% of commissions have homeowner representation, only 40% have renter representation, and only 25% have very low income renter representation of any kind.
  • 30% of commissions have representation from outside Burlington.
  • While 100% of commissions have more than 3 home owners, only 5% of commissions have more than 3 renters.

 


By Profession:

  • Overwhelmingly, over 44% (Business/Real) of commissioners work in the fields of law, housing, development, business, and finance. These are jobs that tend to pay much more than a livable wage.
  • Nearly 10% (Community/Social) of commissioners work in education, social work, community mental health, politics, or community organizing.
  • 1 student (UVM) was on any commissions, and they were a graduate student. No undergraduate students, who number over 12,000, have any representation on any boards or commissions.
  • 11.4% (Government) of commissioners work for either the city or state.

Note: One person worked in UVM real estate, and others worked as real estate and/or business lawyers. They were counted in all applicable groups.

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.

*Updated* The Death of Burlington’s Accessibility Committee

*Update* I heard through the grapevine that the city is looking to revive the committee. I hope they will reach out to all the folks who left, especially committee chair Ralph Montefusco, and work to make sure this committee has the access and voice it deserves.

*Update 2* – I asked the Mayor’s office for comment on Monday August 21, but have not gotten a response.

 

Something has happened to our city’s accessibility committee. Here were the members in September 2015.

 

Here is where the committee is at today.

 

What happened? Ralph Montefusco, former chair of the committee, had this to say at an August 7th city council meeting:

“On March 18, 2013, the Committee presented an Accessibility Strategy and Plan to the City Council. We identified strategies and action items for increasing accessibility to the City of Burlington’s programs, infrastructure, and workforce. The plan was received by the City Council, and action was taken to increase membership on the Committee to include representatives from the Burlington School District, AARP, Burlington Parks & Recreation, and the Howard Center.

The Committee continued to meet monthly and bring a range of City stakeholders together to address accessibility needs. However, after some initial success, the Committee began to fall apart. We lost staff support and attempts to communicate with the Administration led nowhere. The final straw was when we attempted to get some new members appointed and were informed that those appointments weren’t made because the Committee somehow wasn’t even on the list of annual appointments. Today, there is only one person listed as a member and meetings are no longer being held.

My message to you today is that, just as in 2012, the Committee has atrophied. Consider what this mean for inclusion in our City and what message this sends to our citizens.”

It would appear that Mayor Weinberger could not be bothered to meet with the committee or take their suggestions into account over the course of a couple years. Business members, community members, and even the Director of Church Street Marketplace felt so ignored they left the committee. This is concerning for a few reasons.

1) This administration is full throttle on new developments. How much of this new development doesn’t and won’t meet accessibility requirements? How much of our new city will be inaccessible to folks who already face disenfranchisement and discrimination? 2) What other boards and commissions are being ignored by the mayor – is he so focused on development and attracting capital that he is leaving behind other equally important, socially-focused commissions? 3) Who is left to advocate for these folks on the city level? Who will make sure those with accessibility concerns can feel safe and comfortable and as full members in our community?

Up until a few years ago, when my diabetic father had one of his legs amputated, it had never occurred me whether Burlington was an accessible city. Trying to get around the city with him, in a wheelchair or with a walker, has helped me realize just how much work is left to be done. But many people, for better or worse, don’t have someone in their lives who can help them come to these realizations. All the more reason to have an accessibility committee that is respected.

You can watch the video here, starting at 22:50. Full transcript below.

______________________________________________________________________________

Good Evening. My name is Ralph Montefusco and I live in Ward 4.

At your October 15, 2012 meeting, the Burlington City Council tasked the Mayor with revitalizing and making appointments to the Burlington Committee on Accessibility. Those appointments were approved on December 3, 2012.

The Committee, made up of City staff and community members, was specifically charged with developing a strategy and plan to address accessibility in the City, including reviewing and updating the previous mission statement, suggesting the needed frequency of reporting accessibility needs to the City Council, and devising a process to assess the City’s accessibility needs.

On March 18, 2013, the Committee presented an Accessibility Strategy and Plan to the City Council. We identified strategies and action items for increasing accessibility to the City of Burlington’s programs, infrastructure, and workforce. The plan was received by the City Council, and action was taken to increase membership on the Committee to include representatives from the Burlington School District, AARP, Burlington Parks & Recreation, and the Howard Center.

The revised Mission Statement says “The City recognizes that communities excel when all citizens are able to fully participate in all aspects of community life.  The Advisory Committee on Accessibility shall assist and advise the Mayor, the City Council and City departments on ways to increase opportunities for people with disabilities and meet the needs of people with disabilities by encouraging full and equal participation in all aspects of life.  This includes the identification and removal of architectural, procedural, programmatic, attitudinal and communication barriers, and strong advocacy for policies, programs and services that meet the needs of people with disabilities.

The Committee continued to meet monthly and bring a range of City stakeholders together to address accessibility needs. However, after some initial success, the Committee began to fall apart. We lost staff support and attempts to communicate with the Administration led nowhere. The final straw was when we attempted to get some new members appointed and were informed that those appointments weren’t made because the Committee somehow wasn’t even on the list of annual appointments. Today, there is only one person listed as a member and meetings are no longer being held.

My message to you today is that, just as in 2012, the Committee has atrophied. Consider what this mean for inclusion in our City and what message this sends to our citizens.

Thank you for the time.