Burlington city councilors voted unanimously on Monday to divest the city's pension funds from fossil fuel companies and invest in more sustainable industries.
Spearheaded by Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8), the resolution asks for the city to consider creating a "Burlington Green New Deal Investment Fund" to support the city's goal of becoming a net zero community by 2030.
Stromberg said the move combats the climate crisis and sets an example for other cities and towns.
"We need to step up, and we need to be brave," she said. "For some, this is long-awaited and overdue, and for others, this may be a new priority. But the point is we have an incredible opportunity to lead the way."
Some Vermont institutions have already committed to divestment. Earlier this year, the University of Vermont pledged to end its investments in fossil fuel companies by July 2023. The industry currently comprises 6.7 percent of UVM's $536 million endowment portfolio. Middlebury College agreed in January 2019 to phase out its investments over the next 15 years.
Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), who collaborated with Stromberg on the resolution, said Burlington is at a "critical juncture" in recognizing the reality of climate science. Paul said the city can explore investing in greener, more stable industries that will produce a good return for its retirees.
Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said Stromberg's effort was timely, given that the Atlantic has had 30 named tropical storms this year — the most ever on record.
"The climate crisis is raging right now," he said. "This is just a small preview into what things are gonna look like going forward, so it's critical we take every opportunity we can to get off the fossil fuels."
The resolution asks the Burlington Employees Retirement System to account for the fossil fuel investments in its portfolio and to come up with a timeline for divestment by the end of April 2021.
In a statement issued during Monday's meeting, Mayor Miro Weinberger expressed support for the initiative. He said research shows that investing in fossil fuels carries a greater risk to employees' retirement savings.
"It has become empirically clear that it is possible to pursue divestment without sacrificing returns or our low-cost, passive investment strategy," the mayor wrote. "As the Mayors Innovation Project puts it, ‘we shouldn’t be funding our retirement by investing in companies whose operations ensure we won’t have a safe planet to retire on.’"
Later in the meeting, councilors postponed a vote on whether to place an item banning no-cause evictions on the March 2021 ballot.
Currently, landlords can evict tenants for no reason at all. Led by Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), the proposal would require landlords to have a "just cause" to evict a tenant. If voters approved the charter change, the item would go to the state legislature and governor for review. The city would then enshrine the ban in a new city ordinance.
"This is not a radical, radical concept," Pine said. "If you play by the rules, if you pay your rent, if you follow your lease, you don't disrupt the peaceful enjoyment of the property, you deserve the right to not live in fear that you're going to get an eviction notice."
Monday night, however, councilors couldn't decide just how the charter language should spell out exemptions to just-cause evictions.
A version proposed by Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) was more stringent, saying that exemptions "will" include evictions from owner-occupied properties and from those that need serious repairs or are being removed from the rental market. A version proposed by Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) said those exemptions "may" be included but that the ordinance would establish the details.
"I understand people would like it simpler and would like to work it out through an ordinance process, but I think for voters and for constituents, we need to give them a better baseline of information," Carpenter said.
Pine, like Hightower, favored more indefinite language, saying that once the exemptions are written into the charter, they're difficult to change.
Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) urged Carpenter and Hightower, both of whom sit on the council subcommittee that proposed the measure, to try and find common ground before the full council votes. That committee — Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization — will take up the issue at its meeting next Monday.
The full council will resume the debate at its December 7 meeting.