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.

The Winners and Losers of Last Night’s Burlington Telecom Debacle

While lawsuits will likely abound (potentially from Citibank!), it seems like the untransparent, debacle of a process-to-end-all-of-the-city’s-failed-processes has finally come to an end. With that in mind, it’s time to see who succeeded and who lost during last night’s marathon city council meeting to decide the fate of Burlington Telecom.


The Winners:

Mayor Weinberger

It’s hard to believe the Mayor’s hand wasn’t involved in this process, especially since he is known to be very ‘demanding’ that councilors always support his positions. As someone who once considered privatizing Burlington Electric if the price was right, it looks like Weinberger’s ‘anything but the coop’ neoliberal attitude won the day. While it wasn’t a perfect win, voting on a handshake (the best of backroom politics), it should leave some wiggle room to sweeten the deal. Or screw taxpayers and customers over. Remember to vote on Town Meeting Day (for those who can make it to the polls even though you have to work, which definitely doesn’t hurt voter turnout)!

Schurz-ZRF

No one won more than Schurz. Will their owners continue to support conservative movements and their politicans? Will they sell in 5-10 years? Will they continue to say ‘the hell’ to net neutrality? One thing is for certain, the process allowed for them to be the perfect compromise that nobody but Kurt Wright wanted (I think. More on that later).

The Neutral:

Local Journalists

Staying up until 2am and writing great coverage about arguably the city’s greatest shit show means you should thank them and buy them coffee the next time you see them. I assume this is what they live for, so this is the closest any Burlington (Vermont?) citizen has for a win.

Councilors Tracy, Dieng, and Mason

The only three councilors who were entirely consistent throughout this whole process. Love them, hate them, disagree with them, but I have to respect them for sticking it out in the face of angry citizens, threats of lawsuits, and more. I want to give a special shoutout to Councilor Tracy for consistently calling out what a farce this whole process has been.

Councilor Shannon

In the face of an angry Councilor Hartnett, Shannon kept her cool. How anyone kept their cool is besides me, so half shout-out to anyone watching or in the room whose head did not explode. More on her later.

The Democratic Process

I know I’m an idealist but if there’s one sliver of light, it’s that the whole city and state could see how inadequate our city council positions are. Councilors are expected to work full time jobs while also doing full time work as an elected representative. It may work during the day-to-day, but it’s clearly inadequate for huge issues such as these.

It’s time we rethink how we vote and who perennially ends up running (and winning and keeping and keeping) local office, so that folks who have been outside the system for far too long, particularly those who are not from the professional classes or from economic privilege, can successfully run. May I suggest publicly financed elections and councilor pay equal to 40 hours a week of minimum wage or ‘livable wage’?

The Losers:

Burlington Citizens and BT Subscribers
No question we all lost this one. As a vocal coop supporter, I’d much rather have Ting than Schurz (for the reasons mentioned above, and others), and if I realized the city would finally employ IRV, I would have urged my city councilors to support Ting over Schurz). Schurz-ZRF seems like the riskiest parts of Ting (corporate-ness and no actual local presence) with the riskiest parts of KBTL (folks who seem fairly new to the whole telecom business).

Every non-jounalist on #btvcc Twitter

Ting supporters found KBTL supporters to be condescending and KBTL supporters found Ting supporters to be condescending. But in the end, you all lost, since you’re all condescending, including me. No one who regularly tweets #btvcc won, and that includes me, who contributed to this grossness early on. I’m just glad I finally quit the toxicity that has become Burlington political Twitter.

Councilor Knodell and Hartnett

I look like an idiot for defending them in comment sections, where folks claimed their support of KBTL was disingenuous. Frankly from the way voting happened, it certainly looks like they proved me wrong. Whether it’s political maneuvering at its worse or whether it just looks like it, neither one makes them look good.

Other Councilors not named Tracy, Dieng, or Mason. 

This looks so bad. So so bad. Why fight so hard for KBTL or Ting and then give in to arguably the worst of the three options? What was gained from angering nearly every voter? Why does it always happen that folks on the left compromise hard while those in the middle/right get most of what they want? I’d love to know what went through anyone’s mind, on any side, who voted for Schurz. Regardless, no one other councilors can claim to have a shred of supporting transparency (especially Hartnett who whole-heartedly endorsed the final vote).

Councilor Shannon

While it was great to see Councilor Shannon persevere through Hartnett’s rude interruptions, it was incredibly disingenuous of her to imply her vote and final speech was not about political theater like her peers. In fact, her voting history and public comments regarding BT show a regular disregard of transparency when the ends meet her needs.

Councilor Shannon voted for the BT Advisory Board to increase transparency in the process, but then largely ignored results of their citizen survey. When Miro was accused of manipulating the BT voting process, or when the city’s consultant had a direct financial involvement in the decision-making process, Shannon took Weinberger’s side and remained silent, respectively. And we certainly should remember the VERY political decision in 2009 to rush the council vote (in the middle of the financial crises) to not refinance BT, which set us up on the path to where we are today. No political points awarded for only calling out bullshit when it’s your political opponents.

Transparency
There have been complaints since the beginning of the BT process that Mayor Weinberger has not been transparent with councilors, that councilors have not been transparent with their constituents, and then last night’s backroom deal really sealed the deal. Do you remember when Weinberger ran on the platform of transparency? It’s like Burlington Telecom is a blackhole that sucks up integrity and honesty. I’m sure the city will release very useful data on this though.