The Downtown Improvement District Exposed Burlington’s Pathetic Public Processes

(You Can Read More About the Downtown Improvement District and Burlington Business Association here.)

When local government thinks and act like a business, everyone but business owners and landlords lose. Burlington’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) process shows that while ‘stakeholders’ and self-selecting and unscientific ‘focus groups’ may work for businesses, they are quite useless and even harmful for effective, local democratic government. Lousy and rushed public processes have become a hallmark of Burlington’s Weinberger administration, and the DID process was the ugliest process yet.

Just take a look at the list of stakeholders included in the 38+ person PUMA focus groups to see how these meetings were made up of predetermined interest groups, not a cross section of local residents. PUMA met with ‘stakeholders’, interest groups with power or influence in a system, while obviously excluding more marginalized and disconnected citizens.

Even the online survey was heavily skewed towards native-English speakers with high levels of wealth. DID supporters, including the Burlington Business Association, who sent out the RFP for the survey in a clear conflict of interest and blurring of government and business lobbying, touted this flawed focus group and survey as evidence of mass public support for a new business district. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the 1,143 survey respondents, the bulk of collected ‘public’ opinion, were even asked if they supported a Downtown Improvement District.

The survey respondents were far, far wealthier and much, much older than the average Burlington resident. Those making over $100,000+ a year were over-represented by 20%, while those making under $50,000 a year, half of all Burlington residents, were under-represented by 33%. Young adults were under-represented by 31%.

” Mayor Weinberger, speaking at the Democrats’ party, said the DID expansion proposal marked a “very big change” that voters weren’t ready for. He said the authorization request left many details to be ironed out later, which made it hard to quell voters’ doubts. ” – Seven Days

The Downtown Improvement District is another in a long line of ‘public’ processes with very limited participation and predetermined outcomes. These processes are pinned on a series of lies that are designed to give the appearance of collaborative and inclusive democracy, while bowing to wealthy business and real estate interests. These lies further erode trust in our local government, further depresses daily civic participation, and leaves residents feeling powerless and disconnected from their own community.

Most Church Street ‘small’ Business Owners Do Not Live in Burlington

This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 3, 4, are here.

It turns out that while the city is comfortable handing over more power to a body of business owners, 75% of whom live outside the city, they are uncomfortable giving noncitizen residents, and communities affected by the Burlington Airport, a meaningful voice in our politics.

*Post Updated to reflect more accurate numbers of 75% of Church Street Business owners live outside Burlington and roughly 1 out of 4 live in Burlington.*

Another argument that folks who support Burlington’s Downtown Privatization District have made is that most of the ‘small’ business owners on Church Street are local. (How are we defining small? Does Lake Champlain Chocolates count? If we go by federal definitions, businesses with 480 employees count as small…when we don’t define our terms it’s tougher to have honest conversations, which is likely the point of the rushing the privatization plan in the first place. And more importantly, even if our elected officials don’t care as long as their agenda passes, we lose trust in our local government.)

But what does local mean, particularly in the context of democratic government institutions, and why is Mayor Weinberger and most Burlington Councilors excited to give power to certain folks who cannot legally vote in the city while denying said power to others?

First, we need some graphs for context!

(All data was gleaned from Secretary of State Website, Burlington Property Database, or from the Church Street Marketplace Website, so some newer businesses may not have been included on this list. Happy to share data with anyone who asks.)

As we can see, although rents are making it difficult for non-boutique small businesses to compete on Church Street, only about 1 out of every 4 Church Street businesses is corporate/franchise owned. Seems pretty damn good, right?

Here’s where things become a bit trickier:

Of the 62 small businesses on Church Street, only 17, or 28%, of the owners live in Burlington – only 1 out of every 4 businesses on Church Street are owned by a Burlington resident. It seems that Church Street is less of an economic opportunity for Burlington residents/small business owners and more of an economic engine for those who live outside the city.

Burlington Church Street Business Owner Home value vs the citywide median.

On top of this, most of those local business owners are also homeowners, and they tend to have 40-65% more homeowner wealth than the typical Burlington homeowner (numbers on the city website are often only 80-85% of true value), putting local Church Street business owners in the top 20ish% wealthiest of all residents. This is not to mention Church Street landlords (a blog post for another day). With businesses reaping 20% profits since 2008, owners have taken all of the pie while leaving downtown workers in the dust.

Burlington Business owners already have lots of influence in the community, so it’s tough to understand why they’re grabbing for more. There’s the Burlington Business Association which has been given enormous latitude, even with obvious conflicts of interest, over city projects, and there’s the Church Street Marketplace Commission, where 4 out of 9 members must be business owners who can live outside of Burlington.

So why are we handing more power over to these business owners, when 1) the Mayor and many Council Democrats were skeptical of even allowing non-citizen residents to vote several years ago and 2) the Mayor has made it clear he would not share power with the citizens of communities, like Winooski and South Burlington, who have seen serious negative effects by the Burlington Airport? Why is it okay to give power away to a handful of business owners but not to majority-locally elected democratic councils and governments?

And lastly, if the city gave a damn about workers and marginalized populations, why wouldn’t they be making sure that most of the seats of this new privatized downtown district went not to those with power and wealth, but to those who continue to be left behind in Burlington’s steady economy?

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.