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For Sale by Owner

Fair Game


Published October 26, 2011 at 9:42 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

For sale: a small, liberal-minded municipality on the shores of a large — but not “great” — lake in North America. Many publicly owned amenities ready for privatization: a nine-mile bike path with ample lake frontage; a floating boathouse; the shell of a former coal-burning power plant ripe for redevelopment; a waterfront park with recent pedestrian upgrades; an “international” airport; a skating rink; beaches; an auditorium; sewer, water and electric utilities. Inquire about package deals. Cash or check only.

Welcome to the Burlington mayor’s race of 2012, where at least one candidate is tweaking the age-old campaign slogan “Burlington is open for business, but it’s not for sale.”

Republican mayoral candidate Kurt Wright last week shook up the race by letting voters know that, if elected, he would entertain the idea of selling the Burlington Electric Department.

His back-of-the-envelope guesstimate is that the utility could net the city $100 million or more — a calculation BED disputes.

“People have talked about it in the past, but I don’t think the climate was right for this in the past and I think it is now,” said Wright, noting the city’s pension fund may be short by roughly $50 million, and Burlington Telecom owes taxpayers $17 million with no immediate solution in sight.

Wright’s idea was roundly criticized by three of the four Democratic candidates for mayor and incumbent Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss. Democratic candidate Miro Weinberger isn’t ready to sign on to such a proposal — yet. But he didn’t completely dismiss the idea.

“The legacy of the Kiss administration is that we have no choice but to consider highly unpleasant options,” Weinberger said in an interview.

Wright, a sitting city councilor and state lawmaker, also expressed interest in selling off Burlington International Airport and Memorial Auditorium.

Why stop there?

Burlington taxpayers are sitting on a gold mine! Heck, gold mines. Besides, public ownership of parks, waterfront hangouts and utilities is soooo 19th and 20th century.

Wright may be onto something. We need to think outside the box. To wit:

The Community Boathouse: Perfect spot for a floating casino.

Moran Plant: Just the place for a giant ice-climbing wall … no, wait … a casino with a giant ice-climbing wall as the centerpiece! Call it Cirque de Glace.

Parking garages: Right next to the ticket dispenser … slot machines!

Burlington Bike Path: Think toll road. Those casinos don’t build themselves, people!

North Beach: Beachfront condos and … a casino!

The seriousness of Wright’s proposal and the city’s financial troubles aside, I’m not sure folks in the Queen City are quite ready to gamble away public ownership of these resources.

Keeping Up Appearances

Concerns over the cozy relationship between Gov. Peter Shumlin and Green Mountain Power has driven a wedge between two powerhouse pols: the governor and state Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans).

As noted in last week’s Fair Game, Illuzzi filed a last-minute petition asking the Public Service Board to appoint a special counsel to represent ratepayers, given the appearance of “conflicts of interest” between GMP and Team Shumlin.

First, a GMP exec is working for Shumlin to help coordinate rebuilding efforts post-Irene; and second, the husband of Department of Public Service Commissioner liz Miller is a managing partner in the law firm that represents GMP in regulatory matters. Miller’s department is supposed to represent ratepayers and the public interest in utility cases argued before the PSB.

Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen said the governor is disappointed in Illuzzi’s petition.

“Gov. Shumlin and Sen. Illuzzi have a longtime and close relationship,” Allen told Fair Game. “The governor was astonished to learn that Sen. Illuzzi had decided to spearhead an effort to impugn the integrity of the administration in connection with the proposed merger.”

“That’s ridiculous. No one is questioning their competency or integrity,” Illuzzi responded. “It’s a very simple concern that we believe there is an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Commissioner Miller and Gov. Shumlin said they wished Illuzzi had reached out to the administration with his concerns before going public with his petition.

Guess what? He did reach out.

Fair Game has learned that Illuzzi was scheduled to meet with Shumlin, Miller, several other top Shumlin aides and Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), who, like Illuzzi, has concerns about the ownership of Vermont Electric Power Company, the state’s electric transmission network, post-merger. The meeting was scheduled for 1 p.m. on Monday, October 17 — just hours before the deadline to file the intervention petition. Late Friday, the meeting was canceled.

Emails obtained by Fair Game chalked it up to a scheduling conflict. But Allen said it had more to do with Illuzzi’s involvement in the petition — a petition, if you recall, backed by two former DPS public advocates who served under Democratic governor Madeleine Kunin.

“Given Sen. Illuzzi’s political posturing, we determined that his presence at a meeting would be counterproductive,” said Allen.

Or maybe they were hoping to run out the clock, given that the deadline to file the petition was less than five hours after the scheduled meeting with the gov?

If that was the intent, it backfired. Illuzzi tells Fair Game he decided to file the petition after Team Shumlin canceled the meeting.

“That very frankly tipped me toward moving ahead. I made the decision to file on Sunday. I filed Monday,” Illuzzi told Fair Game. “Had we held the meeting, I very well may not have filed the petition. It’s hard to say.”

On Friday, just four days after Illuzzi filed his petition, the Shumlin administration officially opposed Illuzzi’s request.

Responding for the Department of Public Service, public advocate John Beling wrote: “There are no allegations made, nor is there factual support for a finding, that the commissioner’s husband has a financial interest in any entity subject to supervision of the department (or board), or financially benefits from the outcome of any individual matter before the board, when this merger or any other regulatory matter is handled by other members of his law firm.”

That’s not exactly how Eric Miller, commissioner Miller’s husband, explained his role at the firm of Sheehey Furlong & Behm, which represents GMP.

“Although other lawyers in this firm do represent clients in regulatory proceedings, I am screened off of all of those matters and do not participate in them in any way,” Eric Miller wrote in an email to Fair Game.

He added, “While I do derive some indirect economic benefit from the fees concerning matters on which I do no work, none of those fees are dependent in any way on the positions taken by the Department of Public Service or its commissioner, or who the commissioner is.”

In other words, the law firm gets paid whether Green Mountain Power wins or loses.

But, as Illuzzi points out in his petition, he’s not claiming that anyone is on the take. Rather, the “appearance” of a conflict of interest is enough to warrant a special counsel, he argues.

We’ll see if the Public Service Board agrees.

Party Pooper

The four Democratic horsemen, er, candidates for mayor of Burlington squared off for the first time last week before a crowd of more than 100. One question asked at the debate — and on the minds of many Democrats — is whether the fusion candidate, state Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), would unequivocally support the winner of the caucus.

Ashe began the evening by saying he wouldn’t apologize for his Progressive past, and then proceeded to do just that — repeatedly. He even defended himself against anonymous online comments, taking pains to note that he doesn’t make Mayor Bob Kiss breakfast, nor does he have tattoos of Che Guevara on his forearms. He even rolled up his sleeves to prove it.

The other three Democrats — City Councilor Bram Kranichfeld, state Rep. Jason Lorber and airport commissioner and housing developer Miro Weinberger — unequivocally said they’d support the November 13 caucus winner.

Ashe hedged.

“A compact that a candidate in this caucus should live up to is to support the nominee as long as there is a high-road campaign,” said Ashe. A candidate who takes the “low road” shouldn’t be guaranteed endorsements, then?

Given their middle-of-the-road campaign so far, I think Ashe and the other Ds should worry more about being run over by oncoming traffic than each other.

(Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher Paula Routly. See full disclosure here.)

Lamoille’s Labors

Gov. Peter Shumlin has brought new meaning to the term “bully pulpit” with his constant harangue that roughly 80 unionized state employees drop a grievance against his administration for being refused extra pay for emergency work provided post-Irene.

For some labor-friendly Democrats, the governor’s stance is unacceptable.

At a meeting last week, the Lamoille County Democratic Committee — home to House Speaker Shap Smith and Shumlin adviser Susan Bartlett — unanimously approved a resolution asking the governor and others to “desist from castigation of the efforts of working Vermonters” to file a grievance and seek adjudication from the Vermont Labor Relations Board. It also offered unqualified support for the right of state workers to file a grievance in order to seek clarity about contract language.

The Vermont Democratic Party State Committee will be asked to pass an identical resolution at its November 5 meeting, said Peter Burgess, who chairs the Lamoille County committee.

“It probably doesn’t have much of a chance to pass, because it’s hard to criticize the governor when he’s your guy,” said Burgess. “I feel a little like Butch Cassidy. I’m in the barn and I’m out of bullets, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway.”

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