Greg on protecting neighborhoods, reforming commission representation, and expanding democracy today: “Burlington has been known as a place where issues are openly and thoroughly discussed. But neighborhood planning assemblies have be marginalized and debate has been sidetracked. We can do better. Funding for NPA-selected projects will expand participation and increase accountability. I support the NPA Steering Committee request for $5,000 per NPA. We need more democracy, not less."
"Representation is far from equal on Burlington's commissions, which supervise departments and services. This leaves some neighborhoods with less access. As government becomes more complex, we should work to reduce inequality in power and access as well as wealth. Let’s consider reforms like electing some commissioners."
In the age of early progressive Mayor James Burke, Burlington’s form of government – a weak mayor, city council and several appointed commissions – was typical and sufficient. Within limited bureaucracies, appointed bodies often handled special municipal functions. By the 1960s, however, political scientists were calling this structure obsolete. In Burlington’s system, wrote Vermont historians Andrew and Edith Nuquist, “responsibility is so diffuse that there is frequent paralysis when effective action is called for.”
The city nevertheless resisted the popular national trend toward unified city administration and increased executive authority. Party machines still supplied the necessary leadership. But even before Bernie Sanders’ election, this arrangement – in which a dominant party exercises power through a diffuse structure – tended to separate authority from responsibility. In the 1980s, faced with complex challenges, political realignment, and intensified demands for both efficiency and democracy, Burlington’s system of government looked even more archaic.
Sanders realized after his election that Republicans and Democrats intended to maintain their control over the government machinery by freezing progressives out of the appointment process, much as Gordon Paquette and the old Republicrats had done in the late 1950s. Thus, he launched an attack on the so-called “commission form of government.” At first, he and other Sanderistas wished they could simply abolish the appointed boards and commissions. But that was even less likely than it was workable, and so a campaign gradually developed to reform the system.
At first, the Council majority objected vociferously to criticisms of the “commission system." Commissions were the essence of democracy, “the ultimate in citizen participation,” they claimed, and in criticizing them, the Sanderistas were masking their own bid to impose a dangerous form of one-man rule. This was already an issue in the 1983 mayoral race. But later that year, status quote advocates, including William Aswad and Antonio Pomerleau, faced proponents of change such as Peter Clavelle and myself in a United Way-sponsored debate on access and accountability. And in December 1983 it was Frederick Bailey, chairman of the Republican City Committee, who proposed the appointment of a Citizens’ Panel to study the growing problem.
Five months more passed before the Council appointed the panel. They instructed its members to “study the strengths and weaknesses of Burlington’s Commission Form of Government” and make a report by October 1984. Little did the volunteers – who had been selected by all three of the city’s political factions – suspect how enormous a task they had taken on. Their research took a full year longer than had originally been projected.
Even a small city is a complex organism. Taking its charge seriously, the panel decided to conduct surveys as well as hearings and interviews. Panel members often chuckled over the fact that although they represented warring political factions, the level of cooperation among themselves was surprisingly high. Almost from the first, they agreed that some things indeed needed to be changed.
By November 1984, the surveys were in the mail and the panel was ready to hold a series of hearings. Paquette and Sanders gave their views, along with other members of the current and past administrations. For Paquette, commissions were the “most honest form” of government, while Sanders wanted the Mayor and Council to have “ultimate responsibility.” Liberal Democrats called for “management changes,” while Peter Clavelle charged that under the current system, “no one runs the city.”
With the resignation of panel chair Joan Beauchemin, a Progressive who had spent several years fighting the system over the Southern Connector, I assumed responsibility for coordinating the next phase of the study: making sense of the overwhelming amount of data that had begun to pour in. Meeting more and more often, we engaged in a six-month dialogue that ultimately led to the most comprehensive review of the city’s government in a century.
Our report, released in November 1985, represented a consensus among the panel members on all but the two most controversial issues. Three members could not agree with the majority that the mayor ought to hire and remove department heads or that members of eight important city commissions should be elected. Yet all of us did concur that the city charter needed a comprehensive review, that an administrative committee should be set up to coordinate all departments, and that the responsiveness of government ought to be increased through a formal complaint process, an ombudsman, and new provisions for initiative and recall. “The panel fell short of calling for a radical restructuring,” reported the Burlington Free Press, but it concluded that the office of mayor “ought to be strengthened and the commission form of government made more democratic.”
Sanders, who had once hoped to eliminate the commissioners, was satisfied with the panel’s results. “There is no question,” he wrote to Sue Burton, who assumed the panel chair in March 1985, “but that this report will have a significant impact on future debate regarding the structure of Burlington’s city government. I would be very surprised if, as a result of your report, some very specific charter changes were not brought forward…in the near future.”
But this was not to be. Intellectual consensus and political reality are two very different things; we had concluded that the system wasn’t working, but we hadn’t offered the cure that either side wanted. No one faction had “won” the debate over structure. Progressives, who had finally begun to take seats on key commissions – even dominating some – no longer had as great an incentive to eliminate them. Republicans, who had looked for an endorsement of the status quo, were certainly not going to support an increase in mayoral power while Sanders was in office.
The report of the Citizens’ Panel, a product of over 18 months of hard work, therefore went into the city’s bureaucratic “black hole.” Three years later, when someone asked the city clerk’s office for a copy of the document, staff members had no idea where or what it was.