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People's Republic: Is Burlington Moving Leftward?

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Perri Freeman - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Perri Freeman

Last week's Burlington City Council elections produced an apparent political shift, as two young Progressives and a young Democrat were elected in place of older, more centrist politicians — and one of the Progressive winners took down a stalwart of her own party in council veteran Jane Knodell (P-Central District).

The big questions: Does this signal a leftward movement in Burlington politics? (Yes, a little.) Is it a victory for the Vermont Progressive Party or a sign of internal division? (Some of both.) And can a divided city council find ways to govern effectively? (Too soon to tell.)

After losing the Progressive nomination to 27-year-old Perri Freeman at a January party caucus, Knodell opted to run as an independent. She lost to Freeman again in last week's election. Knodell had been a Progressive councilor for 19 of the past 26 years, but Freeman successfully depicted her as too conservative.

The other new Progressive is 24-year-old Jack Hanson, who defeated incumbent Richard Deane (D-East District). Young Democrat Franklin Paulino will succeed centrist Dave Hartnett (D-North District). The only incumbent to win reelection was Joan Shannon (D-South District).

The partisan breakdown of the 12-member council didn't change much. The Progressives posted a net gain of one seat and now hold four, while the Democratic caucus shrank from five to four. There are still two independents, one Republican and one Dem/Prog.

Mayor Miro Weinberger sees the glass as half full. "We feel pretty good about Tuesday," he said. "Democrats were competing in three races and won two. Voters agreed with us on four of the five ballot questions."

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. In three of four council elections, the victor is clearly to the left of the incumbent. "The mood in Burlington for a change in direction was pretty palpable," said Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3). "There was a strong feeling that some of the policy decisions the city has made are not consistent with Burlington's values." He sees a split city council, with six Progressive or Prog-friendly members and six aligned with Weinberger.

Knodell became the target of that desire for change. State Progressive Party executive director Josh Wronski called her "out of step" on issues such as the sale of Burlington Telecom, the basing of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport and the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center into a 14-story mixed-use project.

"She seemed more aligned with people in the seats of power than with her own constituents," said James Haslam, executive director of the activist group Rights & Democracy, which backed Freeman and Hanson.

Others see it differently. "The Progressives may have won a battle, but in the bigger picture they also lose," said Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4). "If the party doesn't have room for Jane Knodell, they look like a party with a small tent."

Knodell herself believes she lost to a campaign based on "appealing to people's emotions and taking a simplistic approach to my record." She said the party had "shifted to the left" by making common cause with interest groups such as Rights & Democracy, Keep the Park Green and Save Our Skies.

Hanson and Freeman credit Rights & Democracy and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group for laying the political foundation for their victories. Both spent the summer of 2017 in VPIRG's summer canvass, which Hanson called a "really intense bonding experience" that taught him the basics of campaigning and organizing. Every summer, the organization dispatches dozens of young people around the state to raise money and awareness of its key issues. "I don't think I could have done what I just did without the VPIRG experience," he said.

But it's one thing to be an activist. It's another to be responsible for actual governance. "The reason the Progressives have survived all these years is that we are pragmatic and practical," said former Progressive mayor Peter Clavelle. "We govern according to our values, but we focus on the nuts and bolts, on making government work. And you need to be open to diverse views."

Freeman and Hanson say they are open to working across the aisle — but they want to move the aisle to the left. Freeman talks less of bringing the council together than of "bringing in the community."

"We'll have to organize the grassroots to influence council," Hanson said. "We may not have the votes right now, but we'll work to create a Progressive majority." And, he added, to elect a Progressive mayor in 2021.

Weinberger remains optimistic about finding common ground. "We're talking about the People's Republic of Burlington," he said, invoking a phrase that dates back to Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) tenure as mayor. "The administration has always had to work across party lines to build consensus. I expect we'll be able to continue doing that."

That is, if the new councilors have real interest in consensus. "They will have to understand the need to compromise," Knodell said, "or be prepared to lose votes [on the council] and campaign against sitting councilors." Especially any Progs or Prog-adjacent independents who dare to give Weinberger a decisive seventh vote on a key issue.

Next March, eight council members will be up for reelection — including Pine, who endorsed Knodell's independent candidacy. He realizes that he may be in the crosshairs of the Progressive purity brigade. "You never know," he said. "I'm not going to shy away from it."

Could Pine be targeted in 2020? "I don't think so," said Hanson. "I've heard rumors about a challenge [to Pine], but I haven't heard anything firsthand."

The new Progs and their allies have plenty of other potential targets, including Wright (the council's sole Republican), Chip Mason (D-Ward 5), Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) and Adam Roof (I-Ward 8).

After he lost his bid for reelection to the Vermont House in November, Wright had talked of retiring from politics. Now he's changed course. "I am running for council president," he said. That vote will be taken at the new council's organizational meeting on April 1. "As for reelection [to the council in 2020], I'm open to running. I'll decide by September for sure."

Knodell plans to take some time pondering her defeat, but she says a return to politics is "possible. I'll be watching, see what develops and see what opportunities arise."

Such as, hypothetically, a failure by the young Progressives to govern effectively.

Ethics on the Q.T.

The only publicly accessible activity of the Vermont State Ethics Commission would be permanently closed to view under a bill before the legislature.

The House Government Operations Committee may vote as soon as Friday on the proposal. The panel's chair, Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), is expecting unanimous or near-unanimous support. "I don't think anyone has the desire to change course at this point," she said.

The commission's only work that's open to the public is the issuance of advisory opinions. That avenue was exploited last year by VPIRG, which sought one on Gov. Phil Scott's financial arrangement with DuBois Construction, the firm he formerly co-owned. He sold his interest in the company upon taking office to avoid potential conflicts of interest. But he self-financed a loan for the full purchase price of $2.5 million. VPIRG argued that Scott remains conflicted.

If VPIRG had filed a formal ethics complaint, the process would have been entirely closed. But the commission, having been asked only for an advisory opinion, released a finding last October that Scott's deal was not in compliance with the state code of ethics. Scott reacted bitterly to the opinion — and it appears that most lawmakers are on his side.

The Gov Ops bill would only allow those covered by the state ethics code, including state workers and elected officials, to seek advisory opinions. It would also require that such opinions be general in nature, without any personally identifying information. And, as the cherry atop this legislative sundae, it specifically states that Vermont's ethics code is unenforceable.

Copeland Hanzas explained that the new bill simply reflects the intent of the 2018 legislature, which created the ethics commission. The Scott opinion, she maintained, was in violation of that intent. "That could have, and probably should have, been pursued as a complaint as opposed to an advisory opinion," she said.

Ah, but a complaint would have triggered a completely closed process. VPIRG wanted exposure.

"The governor was found to be in clear violation of the state's code of ethics, and in a Trump-like way, he blew it off," said VPIRG executive director Paul Burns. "The only response from legislators this year is to make it impossible for citizens to ever use a transparent process to uncover violations again. That tells you all you need to know about our state's commitment to ethics."

Copeland Hanzas defended the closed-door process. "I can understand how it might be frustrating from the point of view of the press to have those proceedings be closed," she said. "But this is an evolution and a growing process for Vermonters to understand how this helps in assuring them that government officials are acting ethically."

Two things. First, I just love it when politicians blame the press for being interested in issues of public trust. And second, how does a completely closed process provide any assurance at all about the ethics of public officials?

As for declaring the code of ethics unenforceable, Copeland Hanzas offers this. "What does that mean to enforce the code of ethics?" she asked. "Does that mean we should start impeachment proceedings because it was determined ... that the arrangement [the governor] has with DuBois is unethical?"

Well, no, not at all. But just keep on punching that straw man.

"I don't think any of us wanted to set up ... an extrajudicial way of convicting someone."

And they didn't — not by any stretch of the imagination. The commission has no power to investigate, let alone convict. All it can do is funnel complaints to the appropriate entity, such as the Attorney General's Office or the state Department of Human Resources.

Meanwhile, the founding chair of the five-member ethics commission has resigned. Madeline Motta, a professional ethics consultant, had become the focal point for legislative anger over the DuBois opinion. But she says her departure has nothing to do with that controversy. She was elected as an assistant judge last November, and she wants more time to devote to her new duties.

She does offer some parting observations about the commission's rocky first year. "It's an impossible situation," she said. "The people who you oversee are also the people who control your mandate and your funding."

Which is how you get a commission with no power and few resources. Copeland Hanzas talked of allowing time for the new panel to mature. But in truth, the legislature seems more interested in making appropriate noises than establishing any real oversight on ethical issues.

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