Council Poised to Disband Burlington Telecom Advisory Group | Off Message

Council Poised to Disband Burlington Telecom Advisory Group


The Burlington City Council will be asked at its meeting next Monday to disband a Burlington Telecom citizens' advisory group that it created eight years ago.

City Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5, pictured) says she's confident her colleagues will approve the resolution transferring the responsibilities of the BT Advisory Committee to another existing BT oversight panel known as the Blue Ribbon Committee. The aim, Shannon explains, is to eliminate redundancy and to clarify "who's doing what in regard to BT."

The proposal sponsored by Shannon and five other councilors would also rename the Blue Ribbon Committee, which the council established in 2009 to address the financial crisis that had enveloped the city-owned telecom utility. With its ribbon removed, the body would henceforth be called the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board.

Regardless of the rebranding, the body's makeup would remain unchanged. Champlain College finance chief David Provost would continue to head the six-member entity, which would include SymQuest founder and civic activist Pat Robins; senior director of corporate development David Parker; and three city councilors: Shannon, Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3); and Karen Paul (I-Ward 6).

With this rejiggering of the BT monitoring function, Shannon assures, "we'll have a single oversight body that gets the big picture."

Others are not so sure this is a wise move.

Nina Parris, a member of the committee facing elimination, warned at its October 9 meeting, according to the minutes, that "the council is stating that the big guys with money count while the little guys don't matter." Parris added that disbanding the six-person committee will discourage Burlington's rank-and-file residents from volunteering for the citizen oversight commissions that once had substantial authority over city departments.

The advisory committee decided at that same meeting on Tuesday not to oppose the council's move to kill it. Chairman Bradley Holt reasoned that since the citizens' group is not a political body it should not get involved in what amounts to a political decision to be made by the council.

The group did agree to present a statement to the council at the October 15 meeting. A draft version provided by Holt points out that the Blue Ribbon Committee, unlike the panel he chairs, frequently meets behind closed doors. Holt's proposed statement acknowledges that there are valid reasons for holding these "executive sessions." He cites the need to withhold information that might put BT at a competitive disadvantage.

"We also understand," the draft statement reads, "that the Blue Ribbon Committee feels that conversations with potential Burlington Telecom investors, partners or purchasers must be kept confidential, at least initially, in order to obtain the best possible terms for the citizens of Burlington."

The advisory body's discussions were seldom conducted in private, Holt notes. But Greg Hancock, who recently resigned from the citizens' panel, observes that members of the public almost never attended the group's meetings. Hancock, a former telecom manager for AT&T, says he quit the panel because "it was hard to tell what function it was serving."

Shannon offers assurance that the types of discussions carried out in public by the citizens' panel will also be carried out on a regular basis by the renamed BT Advisory Board. "There shouldn't be any more additional executive sessions with the new configuration than there were in the past," Shannon says.

But it remains unclear what any type of monitoring entity can achieve at a time when BT remains in limbo. The financially troubled utility is unable to market its services because it lacks investment resources and it also cannot find a partner or a new owner as long as a federal lawsuit to repossess BT's infrastucture remains unresolved.

BT will, however, soon offer its customers broadband speeds that are among the world's fastest, Holt points out. He will tell the council on Monday that Burlington residents and businesses will be offered access to downloading speeds 150 times the U.S. average and 65 times faster than the average in South Korea, which is said to have the world's highest velocity broadband.

Photo by Andy Bromage