Thursday, March 26, 2015

Progressive Eclipse: Chapter One -- A Legacy at Risk

October 6, 2011

It was hard to ignore the rumblings of a political upheaval. Another election for mayor was coming up in Vermont’s largest city, a multi-million dollar Burlington Telecom lawsuit accused the administration of fraud and breach of contract,  and the mayor faced widespread criticism – often from within his own Progressive Party base. The atmosphere was as volatile as it had been in three decades.

Bob Kiss and Kurt Wright
Four candidates to replace Mayor Bob Kiss had announced by early October, and at least three more were considering it. The official list included three Democrats – Airport Commissioner Miro Weinberger, State Representative Jason Lorber and City Councilor Bram Kranichfeld -- and one Republican, Kurt Wright, a council member and state lawmaker who had come close to beating Kiss three years earlier.

All of them were hammering Kiss about BT finances and other examples of what they considered the administration’s mismanagement, deceit and failure to communicate.

One of the possible contenders was State Senator Tim Ashe, a former City Council Progressive and now perhaps the party’s best hope for an alliance with Democrats. There was also Assistant Housing Director Brian Pine, another former member of the council, and Ward 3 Progressive Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak.

Mayor Kiss was mum about his plans, even at Party meetings. But the push for someone to challenge him, along with an upsurge in local activism on issues like his attempt to forge a climate change partnership with Lockheed Martin, pointed to a tumultuous winter political season. No matter what the weather, the upcoming debates were sure to be heated, tense and well-attended.

Questions were also being raised about the election process itself, specifically about whether people should continue running with party labels. In September the City Council had narrowly rejected a resolution to look at changing the city charter to eliminate party designations for mayoral and City Council contests, but only after a debate so intense that Board President Bill Keogh had to angrily hammer his gavel and call a halt.

The discussion highlighted the unique nature of Burlington’s political landscape, three political parties uneasily sharing legislative power, and an executive branch run by Progressives for all but two of the last 30 years. It had all begun in March 1981 when Bernie Sanders unseated long-term incumbent Democrat Gordon Paquette by just 10 votes.

Three decades later, despite agreeing with Progressives on many issues, local Democrats saw a strong chance of recapturing the city’s most powerful job for the first time in decades. The reasons for their optimism: Burlington’s finances were in trouble and the mayor was unpopular, widely considered neither accountable nor transparent enough. On September 16, that view received a boost when Moody’s Investors Service warned that the city’s financial woes could lead to a further downgrade in its credit rating.

At Miro Weinberger’s campaign announcement on September 13, held next door to City Hall in a former firehouse managed by Burlington City Arts, the first-time candidate charged that Mayor Kiss had put the city in “an exceptionally poor negotiating position.” An apparent reluctance to discuss the details of Burlington Telecom finances had “left a mood of anger and anxiety about our future,” he charged. The 41-year-old housing developer also criticized the administration’s failure to secure funding before starting on a $14 million airport parking lot expansion.
Jason Lorber was first
Jason Lorber, the first candidate to enter the race, had a similar critique. Weighing in on the Telecom lawsuit, the state legislator and gay rights activist, who made a living as a consultant and standup comedian, said BT’s woes were a prime example of the need for change. Although promising not to assign blame, he nevertheless accused the mayor of failing to be sufficiently open about city affairs. Local residents “don’t want decisions being made behind closed doors,” he charged.

On his campaign website, Bram Kranichfeld, a criminal prosecutor at the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office, defined himself as “the people’s choice” and said he wanted to “restore trust, accountability and fiscal responsibility.” At 31, he was the youngest candidate, and counted among his backers a former Democratic mayoral candidate, Paul Lafayette. Although Kranichfeld had opposed the move to drop party designations, he frequently talked about a “non-partisan approach.”

Kurt Wright had made his official announcement on September 18 during appearances on a morning TV news program and local radio talk. Also promising to restore trust and credibility, he said, “Job No. 1 for me will be to restore fiscal responsibility to the city and restore our credit rating.” As a Republican who had run twice before, he knew that the less people thought about party allegiances the better chance he had with what had become over the years a decidedly liberal electorate.

Politics by the numbers

When Mayor Peter Clavelle decided to retire in late 2005 after 15 years in office, he and his allies didn’t believe that another Progressive could be elected, or that the local party would long survive. As a result, a number of local progressive figures decided to endorse Hinda Miller, a Democratic state legislator and entrepreneur running to succeed him.

The leaders of Burlington’s Progressive Party weren’t willing to accept that prognosis, however, and turned to Kiss, a veteran human services bureaucrat and state legislator. He ended up beating Miller by about 9 percent and became the first Burlington mayor elected using instant runoff voting. Rumors circulated that some GOP supporters were urged privately to give Kiss their second place vote rather than indirectly help the Democrat. In any case, the conclusion that the city’s progressive era was over proved to be premature.

In office Kiss continued along a pragmatic, sometimes progressive path – lean budgets, “modest growth” and innovations like BT, a municipal cable, phone and Internet service operation. Business Week called Burlington one of the best places “to raise your kids,” and the Centers for Disease Control crowned it the nation’s “healthiest city.”

In the 2009 race, despite various political affiliations, five mayoral candidates embraced a similar mixture of liberal rhetoric and practical proposals that first emerged during the Sanders era. Wright talked about leadership and Democrat Andy Montroll argued that Burlington was “coasting along.” Neither questioned how the city was being run.

During one debate, Montroll said that the best course was to focus on “what we have,” while Independent challenger Dan Smith stressed the need to “reinvent ourselves” in a “post-partisan” era. The only substantive criticism of Kiss revolved around his handling of accounting and personnel matters.

In the end, 8,980 people voted – about 1,000 less than had three years earlier – and Kiss was re-elected. In the initial IRV count, however, Wright received 2,951 votes, beating Kiss by almost 400. In the second round of the runoff, the votes of independent Dan Smith and Green Party candidate James Simpson were redistributed to the remaining three. Wright was still ahead, with 3,294 votes to 2,981 for Kiss.

But when Montroll’s votes were redistributed for a third round, Kiss pulled ahead with 4,313, beating Wright’s 4,061. The Republican’s supporters were not pleased and mounted a campaign to repeal IRV, which they succeeded in doing by 52 to 48 percent the following year.

In 2012, the race would be decided the old way, the top vote-getter over 40 percent. The question was whether Kiss would even seek a third term. He was no longer popular or even trusted with many locals, and seemed tired of the games. But even if he opted out, the Progressive Party faced an uphill battle with almost any candidate. That’s why politicians like Ashe, with ties to both Progressives and Democrats, were being recruited, and why Pine talked about reaching out beyond the base.

Burlington’s “third party” had evolved from an informal coalition after Sanders became mayor into part of a statewide electoral organization. At its height, it had almost half the seats on the City Council. But in 2011 there were only two Progressives, both representing Ward 3, heart of the city and once a Democratic stronghold.

Kiss was beleaguered from both the right and left by criticisms about openness, finances and BT, a major progressive initiative at risk of being sold or sparking a major financial crisis. Thirty years after Sanders first local victory Democrats dominated the Council, and along with Republicans, envisioned a return to executive power.

As Bernie put it back in 1981, it was time for a change – real change.
NEXT: When Lockheed Came to Town

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Campaign Was Just a Beginning

In the 1970s and 1980s, I was part of the movement in Burlington that put progressives in power. But things clearly changed over the years. In any case, local leaders of the Progressive Party united behind Steve Goodkind for mayor in 2015, so the question became whether to run anyway. I waited and listened for months – and basically heard nothing.

What I mean is, nothing of consequence about the fast-tracking of various projects developing across the city – from the threat of another commercial center replacing a North End mobile home neighborhood to the looming, intensive development of 33 acres of irreplaceable open space owned by the financially-strapped Burlington College.

Nothing too about troubling, proposed zoning changes and gentrification plans in the South End that threatened to drive out the innovators and artists who make the city special, and certainly nothing about low-key planning for a downtown mall makeover and another major hotel, this one right at the water’s edge. That project, hidden under the label “adaptive reuse and infill,” was reluctantly acknowledged on page 108 of a 113-page pitch known as PlanBTV. 

On these issues and more, Progressives and their candidate were silent.

As a result, supporters urged me to reconsider, and more than that, they took to the streets and public events to see how others felt and collect signatures to place my name on the ballot as an Independent Candidate. 

After that, the debate changed -- from narrow infighting between the Democratic and Progressive candidates to a sustained and substantive discussion about growth, gentrification and what kind of community we want in the future. During that campaign, I shared insights and lessons learned from over 40 years. More important, I shared what I was hearing – about outrageous housing costs and unmet neighborhood needs, preserving open space and raising local wages, resisting privatization and increasing participation and real accountability. In that sense, our campaign for preservation and change succeeded early, altering the debate and public perceptions before the election. 

In the near future, I warned, decisions will be made that change Burlington for generations. With a developer in charge, the city is on an express train to gentrification. But as a result of our efforts more people began to realize that there is an alternative: to challenge complacency and question the rush to redevelop, to find sustainable solutions based on community values and balanced priorities, and to open up local debate on the big decisions ahead.

As I often said, we can’t just build our way out of problems. We need solutions that balance efficiency and growth with democracy and fairness, and create positive outcomes for all of us.  And to find them we need to ask more questions, get more answers and more people involved, to reclaim the right to make informed choices – the essence of democracy. But that means more openness, access, and accountability than we have been seeing.

Burlington is high on numerous best-of lists. But that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the problems affecting the rest of the country – things like growing economic inequality, profiling, prejudice and discrimination, climate change, and the impacts of militarism – the latter most evident locally in the expected arrival of F-35s at the airport. It’s not too late to stop this boondoggle from making parts of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski virtually uninhabitable.

It’s also important to understand that Burlington has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Yet current redevelopment plans will make matters worse. Climate change is real, and so is our basic inter-dependence. What we do matters, here and globally. So, before we give downtown, the waterfront or other neighborhoods a gentrified makeover that increases traffic -- and further drives up rents, we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system – to anticipate and adapt to the resource and climate-related challenges ahead.

A new local agenda is taking shape, and with it new priorities and a list of needed policy changes. The outcome of the race didn’t change that reality. For example, three decades ago we had a 1 percent vacancy rate and people spent half their income on housing. Unfortunately, those figures haven’t changed. It's time to try something new.

Once Burlington was known as a buttoned up, extremely white business town. Today more than 25 percent of public school students come from other cultures, races, and countries. It's time to look at the city and the world differently.

The problem isn’t government. But government is only part of the solution. The community, businesses and independent contractors, students, teachers, artists, and all the 21st century knowledge workers — they need to be heard, and both their success and well-being need to be higher priorities. The goal is engagement – how to cultivate and grow it as well as we attend to the tax base.

In the 1970s Burlington residents were told that if the Southern Connector and a waterfront hotel, civic center and condos weren’t built very soon, the economy would go “down the tubes.” It obviously didn’t happen. They also wanted kiosks on Church Street and thought mass transit and bike paths were irrelevant fantasies. 

Now we are told that there is no alternative to leveraging public assets and infrastructure to spur as much growth as possible. But what kind, how much, and at what cost? Do we really want to look like the eastern version of Vale, Colorado? Or do do we want to slow down and set some reasonable limits? The answer has become clear: There’s no need for a fire sale. We can do better than that.

But how? By opening up, redefining what is possible and deciding what we want – and don’t want– including whether we need some basic standards for large private partners, and also by talking frankly – about the values and resources we hope to preserve, and the policies and approaches we need to change. That's the work ahead, and the process has just begun.

(Statement released 3/21/2015)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Burlington 2050: Thinking Beyond

Greg's opening remarks for the Arts Riot Mayoral Forum, Feb. 27, 2015

Thirty-five years into the future? That’s a long time… as long as Marty McFly went in Back to the Future. … or, as long ago as when Bernie Sanders first ran for mayor. So, let’s imagine…

By 2050, the city has certainly grown – but not as much as many other places. For a while it did. But by 2030 there were almost 60,000 city residents; it was beginning to feel cramped. Then someone from New York proposed building a Heliport at the airport to ferry visitors to waterfront resort destinations. People said, no way! After that, limits were placed on new construction.

Visitors often wonder how we did it without going broke. But it wasn’t rocket science or Tax Incremental Financing. For one thing, it was more money from the 46 percent of local land that was tax exempt. We also protected what worked and got creative. For an orientation, let’s visit the museum. Not the Fleming. We have a City Museum now, out on North Avenue, a short hop by PTN to the entrance of what was once the high school.

Pine Street corridor, from VDQ, publication of the Vermont Design Institute in Burlington

What’s PTN? Well, transportation changed radically, here and everywhere. High-mileage cars fueled by clean energy were part of it. But fewer people need them now, especially in the city. To get here many visitors take the New York to Montreal line, which stops at the transit hub. Once here, about a third of the population bikes regularly; there are free bikes at the hub and other key locations. Another third use some form of public or private "post-oil economy" transit. Many of us use PTN – that’s the Personal Transit Network – a fleet of small, lightweight “pods” that carry groups directly to their destinations. In 2015 the first PTN system (known elsewhere as Personal Rapid Transit) was being tested in West Virginia.

Back to the museum. It’s actually a public education center that combines changing displays on local history, art, environment and culture; a multi-media public library; video, Internet and TV facilities run by Burlington Telecom; the home of the Burlington Workforce Training Center; and a great outdoor space near the lake for concerts and picnics. There’s also a child care center, part of a decentralized network developed privately with city support.

As the effects of climate change intensified, Vermont became even more desirable for people fleeing overcrowded cities, or displaced by rising water and extreme weather. But we knew that one of the secrets of our success is our size – we're small – and the ability to make the best use of our resources. Somehow we found a safe path – sustainability and carefully managed growth.

After the “Heliport Revolt,” there was a renaissance of interest in self-sufficiency and keeping things in human scale. Ordinance and charter changes allowed for more homesteading. Due to the high-energy cost and questionable quality of corporate agriculture, Vermont passed the Food Self-Sufficiency Act in 2025, setting the stage for the re-purposing of land across the state to produce as much food as possible to provide a healthy diet for all Vermonters. At times, the sound of “backyard farms” makes it seem more like the past than the future.

Before we leave, let’s stop downtown. Still a commercial gem, it looks a bit different. Eight to 12 story apartment blocks have been added to the skyline, as well as the resort hotel on the waterfront, finally completed in 2030. But for the last 20 years Burlington has focused more on opening up space than building over it. Another focus is finding new uses for old structures. Like Memorial Auditorium, one of several high schools. But like other education facilities, it’s more than that: it’s also a place for weddings, celebrations, job training at night, and political debate – an emblem of community life.

Does it sound like an expensive place to live? It was for a while. But when studio apartments downtown hit $2,000 a month people demanded control of the market. Now there’s HAB – the Housing Affordability Board, which reviews rental increases, landlord expenses and tenant complaints about unjustified rent hikes.

I’m almost out of time. Let me just say, not everything has changed. People still disagree about issues like public health, water quality, and the cost of living. Some think there are too many yachts on the lake. Others say we're missing out by staying small. But more people are involved in community life, because more of it revolves around neighborhoods. Technological has continued to connect us with the world and each other in amazing ways. But we’ve also realized what being a beautiful, livable city means – human scale and mutual support, preserving nature and cultivating community.

Somehow we found the right balance.