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Roundabout Winooski: Mayoral Candidates Vie to Lead a Changing City

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Bill Norful - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Bill Norful

Bill Norful sat at a corner table last Friday at the MLC Bakeshop in downtown Winooski, looking every bit the attorney on lunch break in creased slacks and a collared shirt, but no jacket. Norful promised he'd be there — on the city's Front Porch Forum email newsletter — between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. And he was, with his wife, Carrie, waiting for potential voters to come in and chat about his mayoral campaign.

A curious resident stopped by and pulled up a chair. Norful, a history buff, was eager to establish his Winooski roots. "I grew up 400 feet from here ... My grandfather had a vegetable garden there — we're talking 1910," smooth-talking Norful told John Ames. Soon, he had engaged Ames on current issues such as parking and development.

Hours later, Norful's opponent, Seth Leonard, was guest of honor at a downtown house party. Morgan Kelner hosted the meet-and-greet that attracted 10 people, including longtime locals and refugees from Bhutan who had recently arrived in Winooski. As guests picked at a fruit platter, Leonard passionately expounded on Winooski's zoning and planning codes.

"You dream about this stuff!" one woman exclaimed, joking about his enthusiasm.

Leonard, wearing baggy khakis and a dress shirt untucked with the sleeves rolled up, greeted each guest with the zeal of the new kid in school trying to make friends. "How long have you lived here? Nine years? Oh, wow!"

Both candidates insist their race for mayor shouldn't be viewed as a battle of old versus new. But they understand why voters may see it that way.

Norful is 61. His family has lived in the city for three generations, and he served as mayor for most of the 1990s. "I've been here forever, but that's not my qualification," Norful said.

Leonard is 32. He moved to the city three years ago and currently serves on the city council.

"To me it's about ideas, and not personality or new versus old," Leonard insisted.

But as they compete to spend the next three years representing a rapidly evolving city, the vast difference in their levels of experience has emerged as a central distinction.

Norful said he has the know-how to pull the levers of government and make progress.

Leonard cited more recent experience. He has spent the past two years on the city council leading a burg almost unrecognizable as the one Norful presided over.

Norful left the mayor's office in 1999, shortly before Winooski's then-sleepy downtown filled up with bars and restaurants, apartments and condominiums. The defunct old woolen mill in which immigrant children labored was then a mostly abandoned shopping mall.

Seth Leonard - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Seth Leonard

The city's population has grown 11 percent since 2000, even as many Vermont communities have shed residents. Young professionals and refugees — from Bosnia, Somalia, Nepal and Bhutan — have moved in. Fourteen percent of Winooski's households host at least one nonnative speaker. The students in the Winooski School District hail from 26 nations and speak 31 languages.

No issues sharply divide the candidates. But they each have their priorities and would bring different points of view to a job that, in Winooski, is largely ceremonial.

Unlike in Burlington, where Mayor Miro Weinberger is the boss on matters large and small in city hall, Winooski city manager Katherine Decarreau runs the city's daily operations, supervises staffers and crafts the city's budget, which councilors approve. For that, Decarreau earns $89,000 a year, while Weinberger makes $92,196.

The Winooski mayor gets an annual stipend of $1,700.

The job description isn't glamorous, either. The mayor heads the five-member city council, which directs the city manager and sets the agenda for council meetings. Technically a full voting member of the council, the mayor historically only votes to break ties or to make a statement on an issue of particular importance. The mayor also serves as the primary liaison between the council and Decarreau.

There are no wards in Winooski. Each city councilor represents all 7,200 city residents. The higher-profile mayor is the de facto face of the city, the primary point of contact for anyone looking for an ear to bend. "The mayor is looked at by folks as the highest political official in the city," said Mayor Mike O'Brien, who decided not to seek reelection. "People look to you, people ask you the questions. You act as the spokesman for the council and the city."

Norful knows this. He served as mayor from 1991 to 1999, and would have continued in the office had Clem Bissonnette not defeated him. He devoted the years that followed to growing his fledgling legal practice. Norful is a defense attorney who has represented some high-profile criminals, including Philip Searles, a transient convicted of killing a homeless woman in South Burlington in 2013. He also handles cases in family and civil courts.

When O'Brien, who succeeded Bissonnette, announced recently that he was stepping aside after eight years, Norful decided he wanted back in.

"I'd rather be part of getting things done than calling them asking for things to be done," Norful said during a recent interview in his Main Street law office, a few blocks from the downtown traffic circle. He said his experience with the law and the inner workings of city hall will enable him to turn ideas into action.

For example, Norful said he thinks that he can persuade the leaders of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival to stage a concert in Winooski, bringing hundreds of people to the city, as they did when he was mayor. And he wants to introduce traffic-calming measures to help reclaim the little-used park in the center of the downtown roundabout.

"There's thousands of little things," Norful said. "You're a conductor, you're a facilitator, and I know who to talk to and how to get things done. If I can't get an answer, I know where to find it."

Thanh Pham, who opened Namaste Asian Market in 2010 and later a nearby restaurant bearing the same name, has occasionally relied on Norful for legal advice. He displays a Norful campaign sign in the front window of his restaurant. "He is a good guy," Pham said. "He's got a lot of ideas. He's going to be good for everyone in the city."

Norful's signature campaign initiative is a proposal to form an alliance with public housing and affordable housing nonprofits like the Champlain Housing Trust. He wants to convert dozens of Winooski's rental apartments into condominiums.

Norful said that the city is being held back by the fact that 65 percent of the city's housing units are rentals. Encouraging home ownership, he said, would allow lower-income residents to build their assets and, in turn, they'd be more invested in the city.

"The rental ratio is very unhealthy," Norful said. "You can't change that in three years. You can start, though."

His plan, Norful conceded, is not fully formed. It would "probably not" involve an investment of city money. Rather, the city would encourage other groups to convert rental units to owner-occupied homes. "This is not new. It's just not done here," Norful said.

More than 25 percent of Winooski residents live below the poverty line. Just a few blocks from the bustling downtown square, apartment buildings show signs of neglect: Porches sag, trash accumulates in tiny yards, windows are left broken.

Leonard works for the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which provides housing assistance to low- and moderate-income residents. He served on the board of the Winooski Community Partnership and helped launch the farmers market in 2012. On Sundays during the growing seasons, residents flock to a grassy lot near the traffic circle to buy farm products.

Leonard is an Indiana native. He says he volunteered for former governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2003, while living in other states, and that he moved to Vermont in 2008. He lived for several years in Burlington while he worked at the Opportunities Credit Union in downtown Winooski. When he and his fiancée decided to buy a home in 2011, they chose the Onion City.

"It was a community we felt like we were a part of before we even moved here," Leonard said during an interview at Scout & Co., a downtown coffee shop with high ceilings and wood floors, where he's been meeting with voters on Sunday afternoons.

His job at the credit union, which involved work with community groups, soon drew Leonard into local politics. He'd lived in Winooski for fewer than two years when he won a seat on the city council in 2012. Now, Leonard said he's ready to lead the city.

"It's really important that we look for people who represent today's Winooski," Leonard said. "It's different, I believe. I believe I have my fingers on the pulse of what's going on in the city. I've worked hard on that."

Leonard said he has been part of an effort to stabilize the city's finances. Since the mid-2000s, Winooski has run budget deficits. In 2010, the city laid off three employees to balance its books. Recently, though, the city got two clean audits, according to Winooski officials.

Leonard said he led the council's effort to bring the city treasurer position under its purview instead of the city manager's. The bureaucratic shuffling will help ensure that the treasurer is independent of other city hall employees and gives unvarnished information to councilors, Leonard said.

The next mayor should be devoted, he said, to an effort that has been quietly percolating in city hall for months: planning for future development along the three gateways to the city. Officials essentially plan to tear up existing zoning regulations and replace them with more flexible guidelines to encourage development while regulating the physical appearance of projects. The effort targets areas that have languished while the downtown surged.

Though he did not offer specific policy proposals, Leonard displayed a wonkish enthusiasm for the various commissions that have been assembled to help guide the process. He is running as a bridge-builder who could unite the city's diverse constituencies behind a common vision. In his campaign literature, he refers to his governing philosophy as "ONE Winooski."

"You've got to do a lot of listening, and that's a strength of mine," Leonard said. "I don't just hear, I listen."

He may listen, but he and his opponent aren't saying much about an issue that's front and center in Winooski — the Pentagon's decision to base F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport in 2020. In a nonbinding referendum that will be on the ballot March 3, residents will be asked whether they want to join a lawsuit fighting the move. An anti-F-35 group petitioned to put the question on the ballot.

Seven local residents, including four from Winooski, sued the U.S. Air Force in federal court last year, seeking to prevent the planes from coming to Vermont. They claim the military failed to perform required environmental reviews. Activists had fought for years to block the jets, citing the noise levels caused by their takeoffs and landings. The F-35s' so-called "noise zone," will affect 6,600 local residents, including many in Winooski.

The article urges the council, which has the authority to make the final decision, to join the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and to contribute $7,500 — roughly $1 per resident — for legal bills. No other communities are currently a part of the lawsuit, which is still in its early stages and could take years to resolve.

James Dumont, the plaintiffs' attorney, said Winooski would be a welcome addition to the case. The city would not be on the hook for any additional payments, Dumont said.

Debate about the F-35s and the noise they generate has dominated the Winooski Front Porch Forum for months. Last week, 41 local clergy members held a press conference in the city, urging Vermont's political leaders to reconsider the basing decision.

"Now that this matter is going to be adjudicated in a court of law, we urge you to reconsider your support for what is a highly questionable endangerment of Vermonters and the imposition of financial hardship on the most economically and socially vulnerable of our neighbors living in the flight path of these yet-to-be-fully-tested fighter-bombers," they wrote in a letter.

Rabbi Joshua Chasan said they hope to persuade Winooski voters to join the lawsuit.

As for Norful and Leonard?

Winooski's mayoral candidates have refrained from discussing the issue on their campaign websites, and have responded to questions from the media with lengthy, complicated answers.

Norful said he does not support joining the lawsuit, viewing it as an unnecessary expense. But he said he would carry out the wishes of the majority of voters if they support it. "Functionally, it's more than just advisory," Norful said. "I'm going to consider it a mandate."

He said he would rather try to persuade Vermont's congressional delegation to force the military to conduct a new environmental review.

Leonard refused to declare a position on the referendum, though he and the rest of the council voted unanimously against the planes in 2013. He said he had questions about the Air Force's plans, but declined to say how he would vote on the ballot article or whether he would support joining the lawsuit as mayor if voters approve the article.

He was more focused, he said, on uniting the diverse city.

"I believe Seth is a person who isn't tied to one agenda or group," said Kelner. "There's so many different segments of Winooski ... he wants to move forward."

Correction 2/18/15: This story has been updated to correct which agency Leonard works for. Further, two dates have been corrected: when he moved to Vermont, and when he says he volunteered for the Dean campaign.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Roundabout Winooski: Mayoral Candidates Vie to Lead a Changing City"

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