The city council's contentious debate over basing the F-35s at Burlington International Airport has been temporarily grounded. The reason: lack of insurance in case the city gets sued.
On Thursday afternoon, Burlington City Council President Joan Shannon announced that she's postponed the debate and vote on a resolution that was scheduled for the council's October 7 meeting, next Monday. That resolution would have clarified the council's position on whether the next-generation fighter jets should be based at BTV — and possibly recommend that decision's delay.
Also postponed was the scheduled public hearing, which was expected to draw a large crowd of both F-35 supporters and opponents.
"Our purpose is not in any way to avoid the vote," Shannon emphasized. "There still will be a vote."
As City Attorney Eileen Blackwood explained: While researching the legal issues surrounding the resolution and vote on the F-35 aircraft, her office learned that the city does not have in place the "public officials liability insurance for the airport that it routinely carries for other city business."
Due to that "gap" in a very specific type of liability coverage for decisions about the airport itself, Blackwood said it wouldn't be wise for the council to go ahead with a vote or take an official position on the F-35s. Blackwood said the city has been in the process of trying to secure the needed coverage, but was unable to do so as of noon Thursday.
"Whether there is a risk or not a risk, my goal as city attorney is to protect the taxpayers from the risk that someone might file a lawsuit," Blackwood said.
The city attorney declined to speculate on, or offer examples of, the type of events (read: litigation) that could possibly occur if the city went ahead with an F-35 vote. She would only say that the required coverage, which she likened to "malpractice insurance," would protect the city for decisions made by the council as well as BTV directors and officers.
Council President Shannon wasn't willing to comment on the resolution itself, and Blackwood wouldn't offer a legal opinion as to whether the resolution, if it were to pass, would be binding.
Shannon added that her goal is to move ahead with this issue "as expeditiously as possible" and plans to take up this issue again "as soon as we have the insurance in place."
Councilor Max Tracy said he was disappointed by the delay.
"After months of discussion on this issue, I was really excited to get it before the full council for a yes-or-no vote," he said. "We had all our ducks in a row. We didn't know anything about the postponement till last night. It came up at the last second. If we don't have this insurance, what are we potentially liable for?"
F-35 opponent Chris Hurd of South Burlington said that, despite the postponement, opponents of the jet still plan to hold a rally outside City Hall to make their voices heard.