Town Meeting Day in South Burlington presented voters with a clear choice on their city’s direction, and they delivered a decisive verdict: Out with the new, in with the old.
Incumbent city councilors Sandy Dooley and Paul Engels were buried in a landslide that swept challengers Pat Nowak and Chris Shaw onto the five-member panel. Dooley and especially Engels presented themselves as a new guard with progressive views, while painting Shaw and Nowak as exponents of an old, pro-development way of conducting the city’s affairs.
But the more than 2-1 rejection of the incumbents by voters does not necessarily signify a triumph of the right over the left. Council candidates in South Burlington don’t run with party labels. And Dooley and Engels were members of a body that made some broadly unpopular moves that had nothing to do with liberal or conservative attitudes. Those actions left them on the defensive throughout an intensely fought campaign.
“It was a combination of things — interim zoning, the F-35, Cairns Arena, the National Gardening Association” that accounted for the outcome, Engels said on the morning after.
Interim zoning refers to a two-year freeze the council imposed on most development in the city, with the aim of enabling four study groups to develop recommendations for South Burlington’s future. “The developers were against that from day one,” comments council chair Rosanne Greco, who remains in office but who will almost certainly have to surrender her gavel when the new council convenes.
“The development community bought this election,” Greco added, referring in part to the heavy advertising on behalf of Nowak and Shaw that ran in South Burlington’s weekly paper.
Voters also appeared to rebuke the incumbents for perceived mishandling of a local businessman’s offer to build an extension onto the Cairns Arena. The National Gardening Association’s decision to move from South Burlington to Williston was also attributed by the challengers to poor management on the part of the council incumbents.
The council’s 4-1 vote last year to oppose the basing of the F-35 fighter jet at Burlington International Airport was another source of controversy. That stance is now highly likely to be reversed, Greco concedes, because Shaw and Nowak have expressed support for bringing the plane to the airport, which sits inside South Burlington’s borders.
The council’s appointment and subsequent firing of city manager Sandy Miller added to a sense among many South Burlingtonians that the council was a source of civic turmoil.
"Having South Burlington in the newspapers repeatedly in the context of adversarial, confrontational kinds of relationships — whether it be the airport, Cairns or NGA — just didn’t sit with how people wanted South Burlington to be perceived,” Dooley says.
“People held me responsible for oversight and decision-making around the city manager,” she adds. “The buck stops with city council.”
The $141,600 severance package presented to Miller was “something many people couldn’t swallow,” Dooley further suggests.
Greco says she expects the new council majority to promote residential development in the city’s southeast quadrant, which she describes as “our last beautiful open space.” Current regulations allow more than 2000 homes to be built there, Greco notes.
“It really will mean paving paradise,” she says.
Greco, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, vows to give voice on the council during the next year to what she now regards as a minority point of view. And then, Greco declares, she'll vacate her seat, adding she never intended to seek re-election to her three-year council seat.
In the short run, Greco expects to be replaced as council chair by F-35 proponent Pam Mackenzie, who helped bankroll the ad campaign on behalf of Nowak and Shaw.
The new majority will probably set SoBu on a course markedly different from the direction taken in the past two years. But some changes will remain in place, Dooley predicts. “There are too many people who have gotten newly involved,” she observes.
Engels specifically cites the City Center project as likely to be brought to fruition as a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use, comparatively high-density development with significant amounts of green space. He says there is general satisfaction in South Burlington with that vision.
Greco agrees. “City Center will go forward because it involves lots of development,” she says.
Nowak and Shaw, neither of whom responded to phone messages on Wednesday morning, ran a well organized campaign, Engels acknowledges. “They worked hard. They got their people to the polls.”
He notes that he had won a council seat two years ago with 1234 votes, and resoundingly lost that seat yesterday after receiving 1120 votes. Noting that the difference between the two tallies is relatively small, he attributes Tuesday’s outcome to the higher-than-average 28 percent turnout of voters — specially those disgruntled with the council’s makeup. “If this had been a normal election in South Burlington, I probably would have won,” Engels muses.