Charles Winkleman

Burlington Politics from the Left

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

Feb
01

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.

Town Meeting Day Brings A Toothless Housing Ballot Item

Jan
26

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.