Burlington Council Approves New Voting Map for March Ballot | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Council Approves New Voting Map for March Ballot

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Published December 6, 2022 at 12:58 a.m.


The new voting map - CITY OF BURLINGTON
  • City of Burlington
  • The new voting map
Burlington city councilors on Monday approved a new map of voting districts
that would significantly change boundary lines for many of the city’s eight wards.

The map, approved by a 6-4 vote, maintains the current eight-ward, four-district configuration for a total of 12 councilors. The city attorney's office will now review the map and return charter change language to councilors next week. Voters will then weigh in on Town Meeting Day.

Council Progressives, all of whom voted against the map, argued that it ignores recommendations from the public and members of an ad hoc committee. Other councilors countered that the map is a compromise.

“We all got moved some. We all lost something,” Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) said. “I think this lands us in a very fair space.”

Burlington was required to draw new voting maps after U.S. Census data showed a shift in settlement patterns over the last decade. Divided evenly, each of the eight wards should have about 5,593 people, but some current wards have more — a violation of the principle of "one person, one vote" that ensures equal representation for everyone.

The Progs' preferred map - CITY OF BURLINGTON
  • City of Burlington
  • The Progs' preferred map
Monday night’s debate ultimately came down to how to divide the city’s large college student population. Long-term residents of present-day Ward 8, which is 75 percent on-campus students, have long complained about students’ outsize influence on city politics.

Changing the ward’s layout was the top priority identified by the redistricting committee. The group also suggested drawing lines to match natural boundaries and preserving neighborhoods such as the Old North End and New North End.

The new map does shift some students out of Ward 8, reducing the total population from about 75 percent to 46. As a result, students would make up a larger share of other districts. Ward 1 would be 33 percent college students, up from an estimated 20 percent; Ward 6 would be 39 percent students, compared to its present-day 15 percent.

Progs favored a map where both Wards 6 and 8 would have just under 50 percent college students each.

Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) argued that the council was sacrificing its other priorities to achieve a lower percentage of students in Ward 6. She said Ward 8 is still gerrymandered, the map lines don’t follow natural boundaries and neighborhoods are still divided.

“If we vote for this map, I think it will be a very disappointing outcome to this process,” Hightower said before the vote.
Ward 3 resident Chris Haessly, who designed several maps for the council's consideration, was equally disappointed. In a statement, Haessly said the new map fails on several counts, including by keeping separate the King and Maple street neighborhoods, which many residents had lobbied to have in the same ward.

Haessly also lamented that the council shot down the ad hoc committee's suggestion to have eight wards with two councilors apiece for a total of 16 members. Hightower made a motion to that end, but it failed on a 5-5 tie.

Also on Monday, the city proposed a new ordinance that would levy carbon fees against property owners who heat their buildings with fossil fuels.

Starting in 2024, the fees would apply to new construction and municipal buildings, plus existing commercial or industrial buildings greater than 50,000 square feet. Darren Springer, general manager of the Burlington Electric Department, estimated that there are about 80 large buildings that would fit in the latter category, including structures at the University of Vermont and UVM Medical Center.

All other buildings, such as existing single-family homes, would be exempt.

“We think we can gain really good experience from implementing this type of policy with larger buildings, where people have capital budgets ... as opposed to trying to implement something like this on a residential scale at this point,” Springer said.
The proposal stems from a charter change voters approved in 2021, which gave the city the authority to regulate thermal heating systems, including by assessing a fee. The change, which Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in April, requires voters to approve such fees with a separate ballot item.

The city is proposing a fee of $150 per ton of greenhouse gas emissions created by the heating system over its lifetime. Revenue from the fees could be used to purchase additional electric vehicles for the city fleet and to fund clean heating projects for renters and low-income households.

Mayor Miro Weinberger hopes to include the proposal on the March 2023 ballot, after it's vetted by council committees. Councilor Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2), however, worried aloud that the deadline may be too short: Councilors must approve all non-charter change ballot items before the end of January.