Councilor Sharon Bushor, far right, voices concerns about the city's new naming policy for city parks at Monday's city council meeting.
Even as members of the Burlington City Council looked forward Monday night, they kept a thoughtful eye on the past. The group bade farewell to its three departing members, debated the merits of naming city parks after financial benefactors and contemplated the fate of a building in which two of the councilors had attended elementary school.
It was the final meeting for councilors Kevin Worden (D-Ward 1), Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7) and Bryan Aubin (D-Ward 4), all of whom had opted not to run for reelection on Town Meeting Day. Fellow councilors, regardless of party affiliation, praised the three men for their wisdom and levelheaded approach to governance. Incoming councilors Selene Colburne (P-Ward 1), Bianka LeGrande (D-Ward 7) and Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) will replace them.
Jesse Bridges, Burlington's director of parks and recreation, then presented the council with a proposal for the city's first-ever naming policy for its parks and related programs. Bridges was making good on an agreement reached in September 2013 between the city council and the Parks Foundation of Burlington.
The policy gives “prospective donors the opportunity to name, dedicate, or rename Burlington parks’ assets appropriately in return for significant financial contributions.” Playgrounds, dog parks, tennis courts, and other facilities within a park would also be eligible for naming, as would scholarships, events and other park programs. The parks and recreation director and the Parks Commission would have final say on whether naming requests are granted.
Councilors endorsed the policy with a 9-2 vote, but Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) and Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) dissented. Bushor said she was concerned about erasing history; she argued for changing the policy to allow for naming new park assets but to preclude the renaming ones that already have an established identity.
Bridges pointed to a line in the policy that he said “fairly vehemently” discourages bestowing new names. It states that renaming is “not encouraged,” and current names should remain in place unless “there are compelling reasons and strong public sentiment” in favor of change.
Bushor wasn’t reassured. “I am still troubled,” she said, that the policy allows for names “to be erased from history.”
Tracy fretted that the policy leaves open the possibility that a corporation could slap its name on a public asset, conjecturing about a “Comcast Park at City Hall” in lieu of the current City Hall Park. He also worried that people who have devoted their lives to public service might be excluded from having a park named in their honor.
“It’s not a ‘You hand us a check, and we name it’” policy, Bridges replied. Financial largesse wouldn't be the sole factor driving naming decisions, he said, pointing out that the policy states a person’s “exceptional civic service” can also merit a naming honor. Bridges said it's highly unlikely the parks and recreation department would choose to rename City Hall Park.
Worden argued that the proposal on the table offered more protections than what preceded it — namely, no policy at all. Mayor Miro Weinberger said the policy acknowledges the reality of naming decisions and “depoliticizes [them] as much as possible.”
Finally, the council devoted much attention Monday night to the Burlington School Board’s proposal to lease the Elihu B. Taft School to the University of Vermont. The council ended up approving the real estate deal, but three members opposed it and others made it clear they felt conflicted.
The brick behemoth of a building was built in Burlington’s Hill section in 1938 with land and money bequeathed by Taft, a lawyer and philanthropist. But he attached significant strings to his gift, specifying that the building be used for educational purposes or, failing that, as a home for indigent men.
An elementary school until 1980, the 21,000 square foot building has, in recent years, housed two Burlington School District programs — OnTop and Horizons — that support between 60 and 70 at-risk students. Board chair Alan Matson and superintendent Jeanne Collins told the council that the building requires as much as $3 million for accessibility measures such as adding elevators and ramps and other upgrades. They consider the space both “inflexible” and “underused.”
Under their proposal — which board attorney Joe McNeil said aligns with Taft’s wishes — the city would enter into an 80-year lease with the university. UVM would pay $20,000 in annual rent, but it would do so by giving the school district a $1.6 million check upfront. The money would go towards supporting the OnTop and Horizons programs, Matson told the council. At the end of 80 years, UVM would then have the option to renew the lease for another 80 years for one dollar per year.
Bushor opposed the transaction, calling it financially imprudent. “Financially, this is shortsighted for the city. I think this is a great deal for UVM.”
Mayor Weinberger, who voted for the arrangement, argued the opposite.
Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4), who attended school there (as did Councilor Karen Paul, D-Ward 6 and McNeil), described it as “without a doubt one of the classic grammar schools of all time” and said he was supporting the proposal because he was confident that UVM “will be a great landlord.”
Councilor Norman Blais (D-Ward 6) has a different sort of connection to the building — in 2008 he represented a plaintiff who successfully stopped the school district from selling the school to UVM. It was ruled a violation of Taft’s will, and Blais made the case that the proposal put before the council on Monday would be guilty of the same thing.
The real question before the council, Blais argued, was ethical rather than legal or financial. “I think the test is more metaphysical. Could you look him in the eye and say, ‘Mr. Taft, we are doing what you wanted’”? Blais said the 80-year lease was, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of selling the building. He chided fellow council members for signaling that “short-term financial expediency will trump ethics.”
The lease agreement is subject to approval by the Chittenden Superior Court, but the school board believes it complies with Taft’s will, according to McNeil.