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Bernie Sanders

President In Peril

Fair Game


Published September 21, 2011 at 12:19 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

It’s shaping up to be a rough year for college presidents in Burlington. First, University of Vermont president Dan Fogel stepped down suddenly after a scandal involving his wife.

Now it looks like Burlington College president Jane O’Meara Sanders could be losing her job.

Burlington College’s board of trustees has listed “Removal of the President” as an item on next Monday’s meeting agenda. Sanders and Adam Dantzscher, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, have both confirmed it.

What does that mean?

Sanders and Dantzscher acknowledge the two sides are in talks about whether to extend Sanders’ current contract after 2013. Beyond that, they’re not saying much.

“Issues related to employees are confidential,” Dantzscher said. “The board has to go through a process, and we are governed by laws, policies and procedures when it comes to personnel matters.”

Sanders responded with an email listing her accomplishments over the past seven years, noting she has made the college a stronger institution that is poised to grow. From expanding its academic offerings and hiring better-credentialed staff to expanding its physical space and student body, she has made the college “stronger than at any time in history,” Sanders wrote.

“All of these gains, and many others, were not made easily,” she added. “But the board made it clear when they hired me, and often throughout the years, that they expected results.” Presumably she believes the college’s improved financial performance, fundraising and financial aid offerings — all of which she lists in her email — should be credited to her.

Sanders hinted at disagreements with the board of trustees but offered no specifics about her future. “This is a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the college. Regardless of the outcome of my discussions with the board, I will remain one of Burlington College’s strongest supporters and wish only the best for the future.”

Sanders’ potential departure comes at a strategically perilous time for the 200-student liberal arts college. It just paid $10 million for one of the most valuable pieces of property in the Queen City — the former Catholic diocese headquarters and its 32-acre campus on North Avenue — and big questions remain about how the college will pay off its mortgage and finance much-needed renovations.

Since August, rumors have been swirling that Sanders and the board are at odds; that her days are numbered. Sources say some trustees balked at the prospect of extending her contract until 2017, four years beyond the current one, out of concern that Sanders might not last that long and the college would be on the hook for a hefty severance package.

Sanders, the wife of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), earns more than $160,000 a year in total compensation.

No one at Burlington College — Jane O’Meara Sanders, several board members, high-level staffers — would talk to Fair Game about Sanders’ possible departure. Even some former staffers who talked privately about the situation refused to speak on the record regarding internal deliberations.

Several years ago, the high-profile ouster of a popular professor — Genese Grill — motivated some to criticize Sanders publicly for the first time.

More recently, several people have complained anonymously that Sanders hasn’t been a strong fundraiser. In her statement, however, she noted that when she first arrived at Burlington College in 2004, the institution was raising about $25,000 a year. This past year, the college received gifts and donation pledges of more than $1.25 million.

One of those donations was an anonymous gift of $1 million — Sanders announced it last week before a fundraising gala. Turns out it was a board member, not Sanders, who secured the donation six months ago. And it’s not a cash gift but a bequest, which means the college isn’t supposed to get the money until the donor dies. Fair Game has learned that a portion of the donation will be used to help the college meet its current expenses.

A recent story by Greg Guma on — “Burlington College Grapples With Growing Pains” — left readers wondering: How the heck can a $2 million college pay for a $10 million expansion, with just a few hundred students?

That may be the multimillion-dollar question trustees are asking Sanders and each other.

It should be noted that Jonathan Leopold was a key figure in the financing deal. Yes, that Jonathan Leopold — the mastermind behind the Burlington Telecom financing fiasco who recently left his position as the city’s chief administrative officer under a cloud of suspicion. Leopold is not only a trustee, but serves in several important roles on the Burlington College board: treasurer, executive committee member, and chair of the finance and facilities committee.

In 2009, according to the college’s publicly available tax filings, Burlington College spent $17,446 on a six-night, all-inclusive stay at a Bahamian beach club owned by Leopold’s son.

Son of a beach.

It’s Party Time!

The ink isn’t yet dry on Mayor Bob Kiss’ political obituary, but four potential challengers have made it official: They want his third-floor office in Burlington City Hall.

The latest candidate — and the one with the most name recognition so far — announced his candidacy on Tuesday. Republican Kurt Wright, a city councilor and five-term state legislator representing the New North End, said he hopes the third time will be the charm. Wright has run twice before — and lost. He challenged Progressive Peter Clavelle in 1999; he took on incumbent Progressive Kiss in 2009.

Wright is the first non-Democrat to announce. The three Dems — Jason Lorber, Miro Weinberger and Bram Kranichfeld — will face off against each other in a citywide caucus, perhaps as early as mid-November.

No word yet whether Mayor Kiss will run for reelection, and if so, if it would be as a Progressive or an independent. Within the Progressive party, Kiss’ support has eroded. He lost more ground recently for pushing a climate-change partnership with weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

If a fellow Progressive challenges Kiss, it’s unclear whether he or she would also need to run as a Democrat to gain legitimacy with voters who may be soured on the Progressive brand.

Doing so would necessitate participating in the Democratic caucus, which is open to anyone who shows up to vote that night. A candidate from any party can crash the caucus with a throng of supporters and seize the nomination, as Clavelle did in 2004. Progressives and Republicans have less open-minded, er, open-door policies at their caucuses.

Last week, Weinberger, a housing developer and airport commissioner, announced he was running for mayor, as did Kranichfeld, a deputy state’s attorney and city councilor representing Ward 2 in the Old North End. Lorber, a four-term state representative, announced in early August.

Wright isn’t daunted by the growing list of challengers.

“I will be entering the race one more time,” Wright told Fair Game. “My record has not been of a partisan, but trying to get things done for the good of the city. This race shouldn’t be about party politics.” Riiight.

For that nonpartisan fantasy to become a reality in a tripartite city, Wright will have to prove he can woo voters outside of his New North End stronghold. In 2009, he flailed in all wards but North Burlington’s Wards 4 and 7. He came in third behind Kiss and Democrat Andy Montroll in Wards 1, 3 and 5; he tied for third with independent Dan Smith in the more progressive-minded Ward 2; and in Ward 6, which has a habit of electing Democrats and GOP-leaning independents to the city council, Wright finished fourth — behind Smith.

Smith, who comes from a stalwart Vermont political family, has already endorsed Weinberger, and at least one prominent Democratic supporter of Wright’s in 2009 — former State Rep. Sandy Baird — is backing Kranichfeld.

Wright has an advantage he didn’t before: Instant-runoff voting, which Wright blamed for his defeat to Kiss in 2009, has since been repealed.

When he ran two years ago, Wright maintained a slim lead over Kiss in the first two instant-runoff rounds, but lost in the third round when Montroll’s second-place choices were added to the mix. Of Montroll’s second-place votes, more than 1332 went to Kiss, while Wright only picked up 767.

Voters cried foul, and Wright asked for a recount. The recount was called off before it could be completed, but the initial re-tally suggested the election-night results would stand.

The bigger advantage for Wright this time might be the Burlington Telecom scandal that has come to define Kiss’ tenure. The BT fiasco solidified the theory held by some that Kiss somehow “stole” the election — and $17 million — from city residents.

Since IRV is history in Burlington, that means the city’s next mayor only needs 40 percent to win the election. He or she won’t have to worry about running for second-place votes. Some observers believe the change will allow candidates to draw sharper contrasts between each other.

Just what Burlington politics needs: Negative campaigning! That’ll restore voters’ faith in city hall.

With potentially three major-party candidates and one or more independent candidates in the running — either Kiss or possibly Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) — it’s unlikely any candidate will garner the requisite 40 percent plurality to win outright in March 2012. That means the top two vote getters will square off in a subsequent runoff election — a “real” runoff, rather than an instant one.

After 30 years in exile, Burlington Democrats want the mayor’s seat back so badly they can taste it. They’re not likely to let a Progressive, or a Republican, wear their mantle this time. At the same time, Republicans know that when Democrats and Progressives fight to the death, as they did in 1993, they have a shot at the seat. Case in point: One-term Republican mayor Peter Brownell.

Progressives know they can’t hope to hold city hall without reaching out to Democrats. The Progs have been in power so long, however, they seem to be in a state of political atrophy.

That’s where the Democrats found themselves in 1981, when an outsider named Bernie Sanders snagged the mayor’s seat by 10 votes.

The next five months should be very interesting.

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