From left, city councilors Kurt Wright, Selene Colburn, Jane Knodell and Max Tracy discuss their strategy ahead of the vote.
Burlington city councilors dispersed into small huddles in the middle of their meeting Monday night.
Were they discussing whether non-citizens should be able to vote or whether people with marijuana-related offenses should be granted amnesty? No. Discussions about proposals to put those questions on the ballot — the former would require state approval; the latter would be non-binding — had been shelved earlier in the evening due to lack of support.
It was permitting, not pot, that prompted the unexpected recess.
Most people agree that the city's permitting process needs fixing, and city officials have long been looking for ways to streamline it. So a resolution on the city council’s agenda that made this point and asked Mayor Miro Weinberger to come up with a plan for reforming the system seemed like a bit of a sleeper item — even to the councilors who proposed it.
"It seems so noncontroversial," said Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2) before the meeting. Knodell, along with Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) and Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4) sponsored the resolution, which asks Weinberger to present the council with a "soup to nuts" plan to reform the permit system — with the goal of creating a "one-stop shop" — by January 2015. It also calls for a public forum on the topic in December.
"I cannot imagine why we would not support this," Wright said, concluding his introduction of the resolution.
What followed was the most tense, though still civil, debate of the night.
Weinberger — who was a developer before he won the mayoral seat, causing some people to worry his policies would be too construction-friendly — chafed at what he interpreted as criticism of his administration's efforts to address the problem.
Over the weekend, his chief of staff, Mike Kanarick, had tried several times to convince the sponsors to remove it from the agenda. In response, the sponsors made a couple of concessions. They removed a line that read, "to date little change has occurred," and instead of requiring Weinberger to have a plan in place by January, asked for a "status report" by then.
The point of the resolution, according to Knodell, was twofold: to show constituents that city officials are making an effort to simplify the process and to make sure the councilors themselves are kept in the loop about the work the administration is doing. Whether it's a developer planning a large project or a resident building a new porch, obtaining approval from the city can get complicated quickly, and when it does, councilors say, they hear from their constituents. "It’s the council wanting to show initiative," Knodell said. "It's also councilors being unaware of what is happening."
Weinberger remained displeased. At Monday's meeting, he described the resolution as "sort of bashing Burlington for being not friendly to business" and criticized the sponsors for not getting more buy-in from him and others before proposing it. "A basic tenet in co-managing the city … is that we not surprise each other."
Councilor Karen Paul also took issue with what she described as the critical tone of the ordinance, noting that there "appeared to be no acknowledgement of all the work that’s been done in the last few years."
Even with the January deadline lifted, the mayor said, it would take a lot of money and time for the administration to meet the resolution's demands. "The idea that this Gordian knot of permit troubles in this city could be — after years of acknowledgement that progress is needed and after real work on this — the idea that we solve the rest of it in the next several months, I think was inappropriate."
At one point during the failed negotiations over the weekend, Knodell said, Kanarick told her that "they'd kill it" — presumably by rallying Democratic councilors to vote against it — if she didn't hold off on the proposal.
They ended up not having the numbers. Democratic councilors made an attempt to postpone a vote on the resolution but the five Progressives, one independent, one Republican and Hartnett outnumbered them, eight to six, and eventually voted to pass it.
Passing a resolution the mayor isn't pleased about, Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) argued, isn't necessarily a bad thing. "I do think we have a responsibility to check the administration and hold their feet to the fire. I think this is a very mild way of doing that."