The results of the South Burlington city council races indicate that sharp political divisions remain in place even as the tone of debates appears to be softening.
Council Chairwoman Pam Mackenzie's victory over two challengers in a race for a three-year seat ensures that the more conservative faction will retain its 3-2 majority. At the same time, Meaghan Emery's successful bid for a two-year seat will keep the more liberal minority at its current strength.
Emery, a former councilor, picked up 1,512 votes to the 1,439 won by her opponent, commercial real-estate agent Mike Simoneau. Mackenzie fell short of the 50 percent mark in her bid for re-election but still won comfortably, gaining 1,427 votes to 1,090 for Planning Commission Vice-Chair Tracey Harrington and 429 for former councilor Paul Engels.
Simoneau, a political ally of Mackenzie's, said the council chairwoman should not interpret her victory as a mandate. Emery agreed, suggesting, “A wise councilor will take heed” of the voters' refusal to give Mackenzie a majority of their votes.
For her part, Mackenzie called attention to all five candidates' agreement on many issues of importance to South Burlington, such as a cautious approach to development of the City Center area and a commitment to balanced budgets without substantial tax increases. The results also “confirm that voters want a continuation of civil discourse on the council, which we have achieved in the past year,” Mackenzie added.
The council and the larger community have been riven the past two years over the proposal to base the F-35 fighter jet at the airport that lies within South Burlington's borders. Debate over the plane has often been contentious and emotionally fraught. But with a decision made to bring the F-35 to the airport, some political passions may now be cooling.
Mackenzie said it would be simplistic to assume that she would have lost her race if she were facing one opponent instead of two. But Harrington's and Engels' combined vote total, which was greater than her own, “is something you pay attention to,” Mackenzie said.
Harrington was also reluctant to claim that she would have defeated Mackenzie had Engels not been in the race. “It's unfortunate it was a three-way race,” she said, “but I'm just completely humbled and grateful for the amount of support I did receive.”