Burlington Council Fails to Override Veto, Forms Reparations Task Force | Off Message

Burlington Council Fails to Override Veto, Forms Reparations Task Force


A voter in Burlington's Old North End - FILE: ALICIA FREESE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • FILE: Alicia Freese ©️ Seven Days
  • A voter in Burlington's Old North End
Progressive Burlington city councilors failed early Tuesday to override Mayor Miro Weinberger's veto of a council-passed measure to hold a special election on ranked-choice voting in November.

The final tally was 7-5, one vote short of the eight needed to overturn the mayoral decision. Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) joined all six Progs in the effort, but it wasn't enough to reach a two-thirds majority of the 12-member body.

Weinberger issued the veto, his first ever, last week, quashing a resolution the council had passed in July to hold the special election. In a one-page memo, the mayor wrote that it would be wasteful to spend $45,000 to print and mail local ballots in November when the question could be called on a Town Meeting Day ballot next March for free.
He repeated that stance Monday night.

"There's a limit to what we can afford to take on in this environment," Weinberger said, referring to how the coronavirus pandemic has squeezed city finances.

He said the city must weigh the cost of special elections against "whether there's a real reason to spend that money ... And in this case, because of COVID, the cost is especially high."

Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District), a lead supporter of ranked-choice voting, decried the mayor's response. "I don't think stifling local democracy is a way to cut costs," he said.
Councilor Jack Hanson supports ranked-choice voting - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Councilor Jack Hanson supports ranked-choice voting
Dieng urged his colleagues to support putting the measure to a vote despite their personal misgivings about the voting system. Several people who called into the council's Zoom meeting called the mayor's veto "undemocratic."

Also known as instant runoff, ranked-choice voting lets voters rank candidates in order of preference. Burlington's resolution states that a candidate who earns a majority of the vote wins, but if none does, the election would go to a runoff.

In each round, the person with the fewest votes would be eliminated, and each vote would be assigned to the voter's top remaining candidate. The process would continue until only two candidates remain, and the candidate with more votes wins. Burlington's current system only requires a 40 percent majority to win.

Voters repealed ranked-choice voting in 2010.

Councilors at Monday's meeting were more united on a vote to establish a task force to study the concept of monetary reparations for residents who are descendants of slaves, and to issue a formal apology for the city's role in slavery. That resolution, introduced by Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), passed unanimously.

The five-member panel will begin meeting by October 1. The group will research slavery's "lingering negative effects ... including economic, political, educational, and social discrimination," the resolution says.

"It does feel like a very basic, foundational step that we need to take in order to begin the process of making amends," Freeman said, adding that the research can help dismantle systemic racism.
City Councilor Zoraya Hightower declares racism a public health emergency - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • City Councilor Zoraya Hightower declares racism a public health emergency
The task force will study slavery in Burlington between 1619 — the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies — and 1865, when the U.S. House of Representatives abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment.

Within a year of first meeting, the group will issue a report with suggestions on how to calculate the reparations and who should get them. It will also recommend programs, policies or projects that can remedy the harm caused by slavery.

Burlington's resolution was inspired by H.478, a measure that would form a task force to consider reparations on a statewide level. It has been stuck in committee since February 2019.

The group's work will be funded with $50,000 from the city's newly formed Racial Justice Fund. Members who are not city employees will be paid per diem for each meeting, up to 26 meetings.

Those to serve on the panel include Tyeastia Green, the city's racial equity director, along with one member each appointed by Weinberger, Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

Weinberger called the resolution historic and "potentially consequential."

"I don't know where this study is going to take us," the mayor said. "I do know, however, that we'll never fully realize the ideals of our country until the issue of reparations is addressed."

Councilors also debated a resolution that charts a path toward preventing residential tenants from being evicted without just cause. The measure originally sought to place a question on the November ballot, but, after some debate, the council unanimously agreed to wait until March 2021.

"There's a whole [contingent] of landlords out there, and like it or not, they are part of this conversation," Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said. "To force this just to get on the November ballot I feel was a mistake. I think there's an opportunity to bring more into this conversation."
City Councilor Brian Pine is a lead sponsor on the renter resolution - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • City Councilor Brian Pine is a lead sponsor on the renter resolution
The resolution proposes allowing the city to adopt an ordinance banning no-cause evictions. The measure defines "just cause" as breaching a written rental agreement, violating state statutes regarding tenants or failing to pay rent.

The ordinance would also try to prevent evictions by setting a maximum rent increase and could require landlords to give tenants a "notice of just cause and other legal requirements as part of the rental agreement," according to the resolution.

Earlier in the meeting, city councilors got their first update on the stalled CityPlace project since Mayor Miro Weinberger issued the developers a notice of default last month.
The letter threatened legal action against majority project owner Brookfield Asset Management for failing to develop the property as promised. Weinberger wrote the letter after learning that Brookfield intends to abandon the project and leave it to minority owner Don Sinex and his firm, Devonwood Investors.

Weinberger said he called for an executive session to determine the city's next steps. The mayor had said he'd give Brookfield "a short window of time" to prove its commitment to CityPlace; the company has not responded to his letter.

"If the path forward does involve robust legal action, which it might, I think it's important that the council and the administration be unified," Weinberger said before entering the closed talks Monday night.
CityPlace Burlington construction site - FILE: JAMES BUCK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: James Buck ©️ Seven Days
  • CityPlace Burlington construction site
Jeff Glassberg, a consultant working as a liaison between the city and Brookfield, told councilors that the city has heard from Devonwood representatives and "reported new partners" about continuing the project. He did not elaborate on "their proposal."

The city has also heard from "well-capitalized, experienced national firms" about developing the site.

"These expressions of interest from others are a positive sign that, despite the current status, the development opportunity — including a substantial residential opportunity — within Burlington downtown is attractive to a range of for-profit and not-for-profit developers," Glassberg said.

He added that while the city does not own the site, it may be able to "play a role in finding the appropriate team to help move forward" with it.

Glassberg noted that work to restore sidewalks and parking spaces along Bank and Cherry streets should be completed next week. Several murals that were removed during construction are undamaged, Glassberg said, and will be reinstalled on the fence surrounding the pit.

Watch the full city council meeting on Channel 17 below:

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