Opponents of the F-35s at the City Council meeting
The Burlington City Council on Monday agreed to allow voters to weigh in on the future basing of the F-35 fighter jets — but not before a lengthy discussion about ballot wording that, in the end, will remain the same.
The Town Meeting Day ballot question is advisory, and is not likely to prevent the planned 2019 arrival of the F-35s. The crux of the debate during Monday's meeting centered not around the vote itself, but around language F-35 opponents used conveying "strong support" for the Vermont Air National Guard.
Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to 'protect the citizens of Vermont,' advise the City Council to:
1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and
2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?
Three councilors — Jane Knodell (P-Central District), Dave Hartnett (D-North District) and Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) — proposed an amendment to delete the phrase, "as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to 'protect the citizens of Vermont.'"
Col. Hank Harder, the guard's 158th Fighter Wing Vice Wing Commander, agreed with the proposed amendment, saying Monday that it would be "disingenuous and misleading" for F-35 opponents to frame their question in terms of support for the guard.
He called the ballot item unnecessary and misguided, and said construction projects and training have already begun in preparation for the F-35s' arrival.
The fighter jets are the guard's singular focus, Harder said: "Let me be crystal clear: There is no alternative mission for the Vermont Air National Guard."
Col. Hank Harder
Wright, in arguing for striking the controversial phrase, said that such "editorializing comments" have never before been allowed on a ballot question. Permitting such language would be a "precedent-setting mistake," he said.
But the possibility of the change brought an outpouring of public outrage from about 150 residents and activists who sat in the balcony and lined the walls inside Burlington City Hall's Contois Auditorium. Several held signs that read "let the people vote" and "don't subvert democracy."
One F-35 opponent, Peggy Luhrs, accused the council of "eroding" democracy. Another speaker, Eric Maier, said the disillusioned residents would take their concerns to the ballot box — against the F-35s and incumbent city councilors — on Town Meeting Day.
"People have had enough of putting the interests of rich white dudes over average citizens," he said.
Burlingtonians tesify against the F-35.
City attorney Eileen Blackwood told councilors that they could be constitutionally required to put the question on the ballot. She pointed to a recent court ruling on a ballot issue in South Burlington concerning the name change of the high school mascot. Blackwood was not certain whether councilors have the authority to alter the wording of a question before it goes on the ballot.
In the end, the council voted 10-2 to allow the measure, as written, to go on the ballot for Town Meeting Day.
Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said the decision would help the city avoid any potential legal action and called the vote "a bit of an erring on the side of caution."