by Paul Heintz
Updated below with details of a Burlington City Hall press conference Mayor Miro Weinberger called Saturday afternoon to refute Vermonters First’s claims.
First they supported statewide candidates. Then they tackled legislative races. Now Vermonters First, the big-spending, conservative super PAC, is going local.
The group's latest mailer, which reached Burlington homes Saturday, targets a Queen City ballot item.
"Vote no on question 1. Say no to new debt," it reads. "A tax increase is not a fresh start."
That line appears to be a dig at Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who promised a "fresh start" during his successful mayoral campaign last winter. Weinberger has championed the $9 million ballot question, which seeks to refinance short-term borrowing made necessary by the Burlington Telecom fiasco with long-term bonding.
The ballot item requires two-thirds support from Burlington voters Nov. 6 in order to pass.
Thirteen of the city's 14 city councilors support it. Its sole opponent, Republican Paul Decelles, tells Seven Days he worked with Vermonters First treasurer and consultant Tayt Brooks on the super PAC's new mailer.
"We definitely talked about it," Decelles says. "They ran some things by us and we ran some things by them."
Decelles says he can't quite recall whose idea the mailer was. He says he's in close touch with Brooks, with whom he worked closely when Brooks managed former Republican city councilor Kurt Wright's mayoral campaign against Weinberger. Decelles says he sees no problem with a super PAC delving into municipal politics.
"I see no issue with it," he says. "I don't necessarily have issues with super PACs in general trying to spread their message."
Weinberger certainly does.
"Here in the final days of the campaign, opposition has emerged from a lone city councilor and a secretive super PAC," Weinberger says. "I don't believe Burlingtonians are ready to have their budgetary policy set by a solitary city councilor and a super PAC."
In a dig at Decelles, Weinberger says that the debt his "Fiscal Stability Bond" seeks to refinance "has been there for years and, notably, that solitary city councilor hasn't done anything about it."
Vermonters First isn't the only organization spending money to sway public opinion on the ballot measure. Weinberger and his allies have raised $17,000 from 20 contributors through an outfit called Partnership for Burlington's Future. That group sent postcards to those who requested absentee ballots and is delivering a letter and a four-page lit piece to 14,000 households this weekend.
As Seven Days' Kevin J. Kelley reported Friday, Weinberger's group also plans to robo-call 10,000 Burlington phone numbers Sunday afternoon to invite the people on the other end of the line to an hour-long "telephone town hall," during which the mayor will advocate for Ballot Item No. 1 and two other ballot initiatives. It also plans to hold a rally Sunday evening at Burlington's Club Metronome.
Decelles casts himself as fighting an uphill battle against a well-financed group with the simple aim of providing another perspective on the ballot question. He personally bought lawn signs opposing the item and is putting them up this weekend.
"I'm not quite sure how much Miro and his guys are spending on their campaign," he says. "We don't have the money to throw a party at Nectar's or pay for an ad in Seven Days."
Noting that Vermonters First's chief funder — Lenore Broughton, who had donated $682,500 to the group as of October 15 — is a Burlington resident, Decelles says, "It's a local woman who controls it."
Though Wright himself opposes the ballot item and is friends with Brooks and Decelles, he says he had "no involvement in the effort to produce it and get it out."
That said, Wright says he's glad somebody other than him is advocating against it.
"I've expressed publicly my concern about super PACs in general," he says. "But in this particular one, I'm at least gratified there's an effort to have voters hear the other side of the equation."
Weinberger, however, sees Vermonters First's involvement in a local debate as yet another sign of the corrosive impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United case on democracy.
"I am surprised," he says. "And I think it is another level of the outrage of super PACs that you can have a single individual attempting to have enormous infuence in the outcome of elections at multiple levels."
“We did not call this press conference because we have a problem with opposition and healthy debate,” he said. “We did call it because I do have a problem with mailers that are sent the final weekend that are inaccurate and misleading.”
Standing beside Partnership for Burlington’s Future chairman John Ewing, Weinberger took issue with the mailer’s contention that the $9 million bond constituted “new debt.”
“It is not,” the mayor said. “It is a restructuring of existing debt and creating a vehicle to pay that debt over time, where currently none exists.”
He also combatted Vermonters First’s assertion that the bond represents a tax increase.
“I think it is misleading to say that this is a tax increase. Yes, people’s tax bill will go up a modest amount as a result of the fiscal stability bond. But you have to look at what the alternative is,” he said. “We are today on the edge of junk bond status. We’ve been told by Moody’s, ‘If you don’t do anything in the next six months to two years, you’re likely to be downgraded again.’ That will cost us millions.”
If passed, Burlingtonians will pay $58 a year more on a home worth $250,000.
Asked what the difference was between Vermonters First’s efforts and those of the Partnership for Burlington’s Future, Weinberger said, “We’re going to end up having 20 contributors versus essentially one. I think that’s a difference.”
Arguing that the fiscal problem the city faces is nothing new, Weinberger went on the attack against Decelles.
“The opposition is coming from a lone city councilor who did nothing to avoid this problem and has done nothing to fix it in the three years since this problem was publicly known,” the mayor said.
He later added that Decelles “is a councilor who’s in his fourth term, who has been on the council, been completely aware, been in the executive sessions, has seen this problem unfold over a number of years and has put forward no productive proposals to address it. And now he is opposing alone an effort to do something about that.”
Will the measure pass?
“We don’t know,” the mayor said. “I’m hopeful, but two-thirds super majority is a high bar and I can’t guarantee its success.”
UPDATED at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, with comments from Councilor Paul Decelles
Following Weinberger’s press conference, Decelles said Saturday night that he is, “astounded by [the mayor’s] tone — where he’s taking this.”
“Because I don’t agree with him, I’m somehow now a worthless councilor in his eyes,” Decelles said.
The Republican city councilor took issue with Weinberger’s contention that he failed to respond to the Burlington Telecom debacle or advance his own solutions to the city’s debt problem.
“That’s Miro going back to whatever delusions he has when somebody doesn’t agree with him. I and [former Democratic city councilor] Ed Adrian were two of the most vocal councilors trying to get answers,” Decelles said of the BT situation. “We make $3000 a year and work on a part-time basis. It’s our job to vet his proposals.”
Decelles added that he “lost respect” for Weinberger when the mayor allegedly asked him to skip the vote on placing the fiscal stability bond on the ballot, rather than casting a ‘no’ vote, as Decelles eventually did.
“He actually said, ‘Can I find a way for you to abstain?’ I was shocked that he said it. I didn’t know how to react, so I didn’t saying anything,” Decelles said.
The city councilor also scolded Weinberger for what he called, “belittling a 70-year-old woman from Ward 1, who is spending her own money” — a reference to Vermonters First’s Lenore Broughton.
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