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Two Democrats Vying for Burlington South End Council Seat


Published December 2, 2022 at 4:01 p.m.

  • Left photo by Alison Redlich; right photo courtesy of candidate
  • Joan Shannon (left) and Jason Van Driesche
Incumbent Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) is being challenged for the seat she's held for nearly 20 years.

Ward 5 resident Jason Van Driesche is hoping to win the Democratic nomination when the party caucuses virtually on December 15 ahead of Town Meeting elections. He said he's running because Burlington politics have become too divisive, and he thinks voters need a change after nearly two decades.

"There seems to be an unspoken rule in some contexts that you're supposed to wait your turn, and that somebody new runs when the person who's in the office decides to step down," he said. "I think that does a disservice to the voters, because people should get to have a choice."

Shannon, meanwhile, said her experience on the council is a strength and that dozens of voters have already expressed support for her reelection.

"It has been a privilege to serve the community, and I do still have the fire in my belly to do this work," she said.

So far, the South District is the only contested caucus of the five seats up for reelection in March. Progressives have not yet scheduled a caucus date.
It's not unheard of for a longstanding incumbent to be defeated at a party caucus. Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) won the Progs' nomination for the 2019 election over longtime councilor Jane Knodell. The following year, independent councilor Sharon Bushor lost the Progs' endorsement for the first time in three decades to newcomer Zoraya Hightower. Both Knodell and Bushor ran as independents those years and lost.

Van Driesche, 51, was recently named chief of staff at Front Porch Forum but previously worked at cycling-focused nonprofit Local Motion for close to a decade. He's lived in the South End, on Caroline Street, for 15 years. Shannon, 58, is a real estate agent who has lived in the Lakeside neighborhood since 1995.

The candidates' policy stances aren't so different. Both want to see more affordable housing in the city and say Burlington can address public safety with a well-trained police department and by increasing supports for people facing mental health and substance-use challenges.

But they do diverge on some matters. Asked for an example, Van Driesche pointed to a proposal that would no longer require developers to build a minimum number of parking spots for new projects. The plan would instead introduce a cap on the number of spaces allowed. Van Driesche is in favor because he says developers could build more housing units if they have the flexibility to choose how much parking they need.

"That's one of a number of areas where I'm willing to experiment and try new things that have worked in other communities ... that will help us solve some of the significant challenges that we're facing," he said.

Shannon has concerns about the proposal. She agrees that developers sometimes build too much parking but said "it becomes a burden on the neighbors" when there isn't enough.

Lower-income residents also bear the brunt, Shannon said, noting that's a primary reason she voted against removing parking spaces on North Winooski Avenue to build bike lanes — a project Van Driesche supports. Groups including the Community Health Centers of Burlington and Feeding Chittenden food shelf had raised concerns about their clients finding parking.
"While I support bike lanes, I still am willing to listen to people and acknowledge the unintended consequences," Shannon said. "I’m reluctant to move forward until there are solutions."

Van Driesche also talked up his willingness to collaborate, particularly with council Progressives. He said Shannon doesn't "have a positive relationship with Progs" whereas he would strive to reach across the aisle.

"One thing I've heard people say that they admire about Joan is she's very clear about her position, and there's value in that," he said. "But I think the more fundamental value that we need right now on council is bridge building."

Shannon acknowledged that she's disagreed with Progressive-led efforts — the June 2020 vote to reduce the police force chief among them. But she dismissed the notion that she's "an oppositional person" and unwilling to work with the Progs. This spring, she and former Progressive councilor Jack Hanson cast the only two votes against short-term rental regulations that they feared weren't strict enough. And this fall, she cosponsored a resolution with four Progs to reinstate ranked-choice voting in mayoral elections.

Shannon also said she represents her constituents and that she asks for feedback — and receives a lot — before casting major policy votes.

"My record is my record. Jason doesn't really have a record," she said. "Anyone can pick things they agreed with me on, things they disagree with me on, [but] I think representation is more about that communication with constituents."

The Democratic caucus is open to candidates for all four "district" council seats, plus that for Ward 8. The latter seat has been vacant since October, when former Progressive councilor Ali House resigned.

Incumbent Councilor Mark Barlow is seeking reelection in the North District as an independent. Freeman, the Central District incumbent, didn't respond to an interview request. The East District seat, which was vacated by former councilor Hanson, will be filled with a special election next week — and then again in March.

Correction, December 3: A previous version of this article misstated Van Driesche's position on a parking proposal.