Mayor Weinberger’s Revolving Door and Political Patronage Machine

Out with the old and in with the new. It seems that the door for folks who work for Mayor Weinberger will revolve a couple more times in the next few weeks. Recently hired CEDO Director Noelle MacKay will be leaving her position after just two years, and the mayor’s chief of staff Brian Lowe will be leaving after three.

It seems that those hired by Mayor Weinberger don’t tend to stay, and it’s a very troubling sign as we enter years 6-9 of his mayorship. Sometimes folks leave because they don’t mesh well with a community that has historically valued robust democracy and public discussion. It may have to do with the supposedly stifling and controlling environment in City Hall, where rumor has it that one former city department head quit due to our mayor’s numerous tantrums. What is clear, however, is that it’s hard to hire, or keep female department heads in this city, and this is a troubling recurrence.

Don’t take my word for – here’s a 2016 editorial from the Free Press.

“Weinberger deserves credit for recognizing the importance of the gender issue, saying, “We know we do better work if we have a good gender balance.” Yet since taking office in 2012, only three of Weinberger’s 11 department appointees have been women. A city leadership dominated by white men projects a distinct message, one that resonates loudly among people who do not see themselves among those who hold the power.”

Department Heads Hired by Mayor Weinberger Who Have Quit

Current Department Heads Hire By Mayor Weinberger and Still In Office

  • Eileen Blackwood, Burlington City Attorney, 6 years. (Worth noting that Mayor Weinberger’s first pick was Ivy-League-educated friend Ian Carleton, who claimed he should be paid more because of his elite Ivy league education.)
  • Gene Richards, Airport Director, 5 years.
  • Chapin Spencer, DPW Director, 5 years.
  • Neil Lunderville, Burlington Electric, 4 years.,
  • Brandon Del Pozo, Police Chief, 3 years.
  • Yaw Obeng, Superintendent BSD, 3 years.
  • Steven Locke, Fire Chief, 3 years. (Came from Mayor Weinberger’s hometown of Hartford.)
  • Beth Anderson, Former Chief Innovation Officer, 3 Years. (Soon to be Chief Administrative Officer.)
  • Mary Danko, Library Director, 1 year.
  • Cindi Wight, Parks and Rec Director, under 1 year.
  • Brian Lowe, soon to be Chief Innovation Officer.

On top of this, folks who work closest with Mayor Weinberger get rewarded handsomely after they’ve worked for 3 years under his tutelage.

  • His first chief of staff, Mike Kanarick, lasted 3 years and makes $132,000 a year at Burlington Electric, where he makes $10,000 a year less than the director.
  • Brian Lowe, his second chief of staff, also lasted 3 years and if his new job pays as much as when Anderson leaves, he will be making over $112,000 a year, a significant pay raise from his current $75,000 a year.

While it’s unfair to say that what Mayor Weinberger is doing is different than his predecessors, it’s worth questioning what sort of abuses are likely to occur when any Burlington mayor can hand out six-figure city jobs for their closest friends and advisers, and it leads the public to question whether these political patronage hires are the best employees for the job. You’d have to ask your local Burlington Electric employee how things have been working out – rumor has it that folks in BED have to work around Mr. Kanarick. An independent hiring committee and an independent ethics board, could help bring honesty and transparency to this issue.

I’m starting to understand why so many department heads are getting residency exemptions for personal hardship. Since so few of them stick around more than 4 years, why buy a house if they’re thinking of leaving soon after they’re hired?

Is the Progressive Party Becoming Irrelevant?

It’s hard to look at Tuesday’s results and feel excited for the Progressive Party, a party with a very tarnished brand, a party that purports to help working and low-income residents, but is unable to actually attract said folks to their ranks. While Mayor Weinberger lost 15% in the polls from 2015, Progressives were unable to gain a single council seat, couldn’t field a mayoral candidate, and Brian Pine, a heavy favorite and moderate Progressive-ish candidate, was elected to a left-leaning bastion, where radical Genese Grill came close to beating Councilor Knodell only a year ago.

A large part of third party’s appeal is their unwavering commitment to their principles and strategy. Love or hate them, but at least you know their positions and strategies. Third parties’ influence comes from a small tent – a weakness and an asset – which limits membership but saves energy from engaging in lengthy battles requiring extensive internal compromise towards the ‘middle’. While third parties may have trouble winning statewide office, they can still affect change by being a party that works together and pulls from the left, without having to constantly compromise in ways that left Democrats must.

Atleast that’s how it should work. In practice, the Progressive Party over the last few years, particularly Burlington Progressives, have been entirely unable to agree on anything, and because of this no one knows what they stand for. Who wants to vote for a party that, when push comes to shove, say they support working class folks, but were perfectly okay selling city property to a known slumlord, and those who did object did so from the perspective of not privatizing city property, as opposed to protecting our most vulnerable residents from landlord abuse?

From entirely abandoning beleaguered Mayor Kiss, to disagreements about the mall redevelopment, F-35s, and civilian oversight of our police commission, Progressives are unable to vote together, are unable to put together a competing vision for this city that doesn’t involve isolated opposition, and are therefore an entirely ineffective opposition party. While I am sure that many folks feel that being an opposition party is a bad thing, that’s how a two party system works. If you aren’t in power and you want to regain power, you need to offer a clear competing vision. Otherwise, why would anyone vote for change if most of the time the ‘opposition’ is in agreement with the ‘establishment’?

On top of this, Progressive candidates running in Democratic primaries, along with many longtime Democrats like Tim Ashe and Phillip Baruth receiving the Progressive endorsement (D/P or P/D), not only confuse people on what it means to be Progressive, but also make it incredibly hard to hold any party leaders or elected officials accountable to the party platform. On top of this, the Burlington city party has put very limited resources behind new Progressive candidates, but will mobilize for more established and ‘establishment’ candidates (some of whom won’t even take the Progressive label) like Driscoll, Knodell, Pine, the latter two of whom were also supported by mega-landlord Bissonnette. I have trouble understanding how helping marginalized folks includes working with folks who mass-evict low-income residents.

Outside forces have also hurt the party. Bernie running for President as a Democrat, and Our Revolution primarily supporting progressive Democratic candidates, has quickened the party’s demise. The results from the Ward 8 election, where Socialist Culculsure and independent-left Driscoll won many more votes combined than the Democratic incumbent, but Progressive student candidate Neubieser lost handily to the incumbent ‘independent’ Democrat Roof, show that the party is in dire straights and even students would rather support nominally-independent candidates over Progressive challengers.

I know too many people on the left who have become entirely uninterested in the Progressive Party. If the Progressive Party wants to have a chance of survival they need to shed the older Progressives or those associated with older Progressives (Brian Pine, Councilor Knodell, Council Sharon, and anyone associated with Michael Monte and former Mayor Clavelle aka ‘the Clavelle Wing’, who openly supported Mayor Weinberger last election), many of whom refuse to share meaningful leadership and power with younger members, and they need to start putting priority in supporting newer, younger, and often times further-to-the-left candidates. Otherwise, they should be prepared to be in charge of a party that stands for little and accomplishes even less.

But what do I know, I was just chair of the city party for two incredibly frustrating years, and an unsupported city council candidate.

The New Burlington Town Center Is Already Hurting Working Class Residents

I have been a very vocal critic of the Burlington Town Center for several years, mainly because the development relies on trickle down housing and trickle down economics to help low income residents. A recent article in VTDigger about UVM Medical Center’s expansion to the BTC, and the pressure and ‘passion’ Mayor Weinberger used to persuade them to move there, shows how the Mayor’s policies consistently hurt more residents, especially vulnerable ones, than help them.

Sources said the mayor lost his cool at the meeting and reminded hospital officials about the sweet deal they had for city services, though Weinberger said that argument was “not a major part of the conversation,” largely because the city’s hands are tied for another decade plus.

(As an aside, the Mayor’s ‘passion’, which has been described to me as temper tantrums, a good source tells me is a big reason why beloved former Library Director Rubi Simon decided to leaver her job and move out of state over a year ago.)

Now that the hospital will be paying an extra $1,00,000 a year, who will be paying for it? As the article makes clear, “patients”. It’s as if the mayor is so insulated from the yearly 8%-10% yearly increase in healthcare costs and premiums, that adding another $1,000,000 onto the backs of overworked Burlingtonians remains somehow overlooked. Not to mention that UVM Medical Center will likely use this as an excuse to continue paying MUCH less than the fair share of a $1 billion business should be paying for their fees in lieu of property taxes.

Who will benefit from the Burlington Town Center? Businesses on and around Church Street, landlords, hotels, and restaurants. Bringing people to the downtown core, even just for a few hours, means they will spend some amount of money there. The city will likely see a small increase in sales tax and alcohol tax revenue. Property taxes, however, will remain stagnant for 20 years, due to voters’ majority to support the TIF vote (supported almost unanimously by city councilors except Max Tracy). Instead of getting upto $1,000,000 a year in badly needed revenue, we will have to wait until the next generation is voting and having children.

Who will lose from the Burlington Town Center? Workers, especially low-wage workers, service workers, and now anyone who uses the UVM Medical Center (which is, essentially, everyone because they have a monopoly). Wages for service workers continue to remain stagnant, and likely the wealthy Church Street business owners, most of whom don’t live in Burlington, will end up pocketing any extra revenue.

“This decision is highly defensible” after all the factors are weighed, Weinberger said.

As long as those factors don’t include the vast majority of Burlington workers and service workers? Mayor Weinberger, the working class hero.

Burlington’s Early Childhood Education is in Crisis

As a preschool teacher, a graduate of the Snelling Center’s Early Childhood Leadership Institute and as a 2017 city council candidate who campaigned for universal publicly funded early childhood education, it is fair to say I’m pretty passionate about early childhood education, especially at the public policy level. Last year my school even wrote a letter to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education to discuss how much it costs to run a high quality top-rated program, how hard it is to run that program and how everyone in the system suffers due to a severe lack of funding.

While our own Mayor Weinberger promotes his market-based funding scheme for increasing early childhood education in the city, (twice now remaining relatively silent on the matter in non-election years), now is the time to discuss the many, many challenges Burlington’s early education community is facing, and how these challenges are bringing many centers onto the verge of a full blown crisis of care. Since last May, I have reached out to Weinberger’s office multiple times, but my request to meet with him about these issues have been repeatedly ignored. So I’m hoping that if I put my concerns out into the world, maybe just maybe this will make its way to our mayor and he will choose to listen.

Here are the biggest issues.

1) I take no joy in writing this, as I know firsthand the pressures of keeping a sometimes chaotic room full of children safe. That being said, there are real problems right now with several of the ‘high quality’ programs already operating in Burlington, where two centers have lost a STAR, one because children were left unattended and another because no one knew a child had wandered several blocks away from the school. Our STARS rating system does not take into account the work and cost needed to adequately support families with trauma, living through drug addiction, poverty, etc. A program can have 5-STARS but still be unprepared to work with the 70% of young Burlington children who come from homes making below 200% of the federal poverty level. Most, if not all, highly rated programs struggle acutely with these challenges.

2) Centers have real trouble retaining teachers, especially high quality teachers, and some centers have yearly turnover rates as high as 50%. That’s essentially every teacher leaving ever 2 years. Not only do centers struggle to build consistent teaching teams and a clear set of values and expectations, but children who see staff high turnover suffer academically. For children who already come from families where adults are constantly coming into and out of their lives, this can be incredibly stressful and triggering.

3) The typical early childhood educator works two jobs, because most of the best private early childhood educators in the city are paid less than $16 an hour, or $33,000 a year, while the city’s 2018 livable wage with health benefits is only a few thousand dollars less, at $29,619 a year, while neither come close to covering Burlington’s high costs of living. Teachers end up coming to school tired and short-tempered, either because they are burnt out from being tired/sick from overworking, stressed financially, or both. Public schools are incredibly attractive alternatives: while teachers in public schools put in more hours of work during the week, they are compensated, with the help of strong unions, upwards of 50%-70% more than private preschool teachers and early educators, to say nothing of the myriad vacations, health benefits, CTO time, tax breaks, loan forgiveness programs, and secondary education/professional development benefits. When even the Bagel Market on Shelburne Road offers a starting salary of $15 an hour, it’s hard to feel like your community values your work.

4) Most centers also have trouble retaining substitute teachers for when staff are sick, which is why one highly rated center last year had to close their doors for several days at a time due to lack of staff. Imagine what this does to overburdened staff, who may not use sick time even when they should so as to not burden their center. It happens a lot more than you think.

5) Schools often lack the necessary professional development/trainings to prepare teachers to work with children with high levels of stress and trauma due to generational poverty, drug addiction, learning delays, and English Language Learners. My school regularly enrolls ‘problem children’ from other highly rated centers in the area. These centers, which as our mayor will tell you, are a business that should make money, do not have the capacity to deal with these children (often class size-ratios, 8:1 children to teachers, are too high to effectively manage, never mind teach, but that’s the only way to try to break even as a business!) and often parents say they and their children feel much more respected and valued over their previous center.

6) School are ill-funded.  If not for the United Way, my own center would be tens of thousands of dollars in the red every year, just to cover operating expenses. Meanwhile, our executive director, with a masters’ degree and over two decades of experience, makes $45,000 a year. Neither staff nor lower-middle class and working class families win in this system.

7) To reiterate, early education will always be, and should be, a money losing business! It’s a terrible business to get in to because our community has recognized that education from K-12 is not a money-making business but rather a public good. I wish Mayor Weinberger agreed.

8) No centers really want to expand. It’s hard enough to make ends meet, keep children safe, hire competent staff, all the while according to the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission,  a high-quailty toddler/infant slot costs over $35,000 a year. In most centers, the preschool classrooms ends up subsidizing infant and toddler classrooms, all of which are subsidized by charity, small grants, families (who can’t afford it), and most importantly ridiculously low paid teachers and staff.
Adding money to the system right now will be like building a new bedroom on a burning house. Let’s correct the problems current centers face BEFORE we add more capacity.

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.

*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.