At a special meeting Friday afternoon, the Burlington City Council stood by its previous decision to fund renovations for City Hall Park — and members took the opportunity to rigorously defend their decision-making authority as elected officials.
In response to a complaint filed Tuesday by Burlington resident Wayne Senville, councilors voted 10-1 that they did not violate the state's open meeting law. Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) cast the sole opposing vote, while Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) did not attend.
On Monday, the council voted to approve the funding for the $5.8 million project, the final step in moving forward with the downtown park renovation — or so they thought. Senville sent a complaint to the City Attorney's Office the next day, saying that the city had filed supplementary meeting documents too late to allow citizens to comment on them.
"It was clearly insufficient to provide even a cursory review of these documents," Senville told the council at Friday's meeting, which had been called to address his complaint. "Members of the public were unable to comment in a meaningful way."
City Attorney Justin St. James defended the city's process. "Our office unequivocally believes there was no open meeting law violation," he said.
He explained that the city must provide a 48-hour notice of the agenda but has no such requirements for other documents. "The city goes above and beyond by providing supporting documentation," St. James said.
Several members of the public also showed up to defend the council's process. They appeared exasperated by Senville's complaint and the tactics used by others who have opposed the park project.
John Bossange, vice chair of the Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission, decried Senville's letter as "embarrassing" and destructive to democracy. "It appears we have Burlington's own version of a national Tea Party: Obstruction at all cost ... until I get my way," he said.
Resident Hannah King called the letter "an antidemocratic attempt to derail a public initiative [that] needs to be called out as such."
Councilors, too, expressed their impatience at the procedural complaint. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said the last minute budgetary changes that Senville objected to were actually a response to public feedback to make the park plan less expensive.
"We cannot be both responsive to the public and not allow ourselves to make amendments on the floor that have not been publicly warned," Shannon said. "It's the way we make our laws and decisions better. "
Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Central District) warned that continued obstruction would lead to "paralysis in government."
"If we have a paralyzed government, then we'll only have a private sector that can act on behalf of its goals," she said. "I don't think that is in the interest of the citizens."
But others acknowledged that Senville's claim had merit. Tracy, the sole no vote, said the council's work had been sloppy and rushed on Monday.
"It can open the door to questions in a process that has already been incredibly controversial and divisive," he said.
Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) voted in favor of the resolution but said that the council could nonetheless use a training on the state's open meeting law. "We don't want to put up walls to suggest that engagement should be limited," she said.
Senville now has the option to challenge the council's decision on the open meeting violation in court.