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Was Ashe Aware? Did Miro Know?

Fair Game


Published November 30, 2011 at 11:55 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The two Democrats running for mayor of Burlington may differ in style and political pedigree, but they share at least one common experience. Both sat on boards overseeing city projects that have become financial debacles: Burlington Telecom and the Burlington International Airport parking garage.

As a city councilor, state Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) served on the city’s Board of Finance when it approved budgets for Burlington Telecom — the municipally owned phone, internet and cable provider that borrowed $17 million from the city’s cash pool with no plan for paying it back.

As a member of the Burlington Airport Commission, Miro Weinberger voted in favor of issuing bonds to build what became a $14.5 million parking garage — a plan that unraveled over time and is now forcing the city to borrow money at a higher cost to taxpayers.*

Did the mayoral hopefuls sufficiently scrutinize these city projects before they went awry?

Yes and no.

Weinberger has been critical of Ashe’s complicity in the BT financial scandal. Yet Weinberger and the airport commission voted multiple times — often with conditions that went unheeded by city hall — to expand the airport’s garage. He and the commission continued to support the construction plan even after the airport’s bond rating was downgraded in mid-2010 and the commission was left with unanswered questions about the airport’s ability to pay off any new debt.

These votes all occurred after BT became a political and fiscal shit show.

To his credit, in June 2010, Weinberger raised pointed questions via email to then airport director Brian Searles about whether the airport could truly afford the project. Jonathan Leopold, then Burlington’s chief administrative officer, assured the commission the city could finance the project, and the commission again sustained its support.

The commission’s go-along-to-get-along attitude changed in April of this year when Weinberger and his colleagues were asked to approve a short-term-financing fix that would refund the city’s cash pool $13.5 million. Up until that point, the airport commissioners were unaware the cash pool was the garage project’s source of funding. For a moment, it looked like another Burlington Telecom in the making.

The airport commission also learned that a key section from a 2009 feasibility study was withheld. It said that borrowing to build the parking garage could put the airport in jeopardy of taking on too much debt.

“Learning that was breathtaking and it raised the issue to the level of gross fiscal mismanagement for me, and I felt the commission could no longer be a part of it,” Weinberger told Fair Game.

Weinberger won approval from his fellow commissioners to craft a memo laying out the commission’s longstanding concerns about the project and how it had been kept in the dark by Mayor Bob Kiss’ administration. But in the end, after reviewing several drafts, the commission voted 3-2 against issuing the memo.

In late June, Weinberger went directly to the city council to deliver a message that amounted to: Don’t blame us, we were duped.

“I felt the council needed to know what had happened in order to come up with a solution to make sure it didn’t happen again,” said Weinberger.

Weinberger maintains the commission took action to fix a problem it didn’t create and has since worked with the airport staff to trim its budget and right-size its finances. On the other hand, Weinberger has openly criticized Ashe for being a “longtime political ally and supporter of Bob Kiss and his management of Burlington Telecom.”

Weinberger’s dig is largely due to Ashe’s November 2009 claim at a Progressive Party convention: “There is no scandal, there is no controversy, and there is no poor health of our municipally owned telecom service. Burlington Telecom is off to a very good start.”

These words continue to haunt Ashe, and for good reason: It was clear BT was struggling when he was on the council. So why did he make such sweeping claims?

“My response was a direct rebuttal — and perhaps too emotional — to [Department of Public Service] Commissioner David O’Brien and Auditor Tom Salmon’s claim that something criminal was going on,” said Ashe. By November 2009, Leopold had taken responsibility for approving the cash pool withdrawals to prop up BT. No criminal charges were ever filed against city officials, even after investigations by state and federal authorities.

Ashe knew, or should have known, that BT’s finances were shaky because he served on the city’s Board of Finance from April 2008 to April 2009 — a time when the telecom was sucking millions from the city’s checkbook with no clear means to repay it.

In fact, Ashe noted to Fair Game that the finance board tried to fix BT’s financial problems by forcing it to create a new business plan. Also, in mid-2008, the board and city council approved a resolution demanding BT only use its own cash to further build out within the city limits.

Despite these actions, no one on the board of finance — Ashe, Democrat Andy Montroll or then-Board of Finance chairman Republican Kurt Wright — raised public alarms about BT’s sizable debt to taxpayers. Not even when Montroll and Wright challenged Kiss for his job in 2009.

Why not?

“While it was well known that there were financial problems, it was not until the audits came out that we understood just how bad things were,” admitted Montroll, who is a telecommunications attorney by trade. “It came to a point when they just couldn’t hide it anymore.”

(Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. See disclosure in Letters to the Editor.)

Caucus Clause

The Democrats are making a list and checking it twice.

The “list” released on Monday names everyone who is eligible to vote at the Burlington Democratic Party’s mayoral “caucus conclusion” on December 11 — otherwise known as the 1311 most popular people in Burlington. At least through next week.

The Dems’ November 13 caucus ended in a 540-540 tie between Tim Ashe and Miro Weinberger and only those who registered at that event can cast a final ballot.

That official list is expected to grow between now and re-caucus day, as people have already come forward to say their name was erroneously left off the list. And if you thought the caucus voting rules were arcane, wait till you hear the rules for getting added to the list.

To petition onto the voter list, Burlingtonians must file a sworn affidavit saying they registered at the November 13 caucus at Memorial Auditorium. Along with the affidavit, voters need two witnesses to sign sworn affidavits — which need to be notarized.

Requests must be delivered to either City Democratic Party chairman Steve Howard or vice chairman Ed Adrian by 5 p.m. on Monday, December 5.

By noon on December 6, city Democrats will post the list of added names online.

At that point, anyone can challenge the additional names — but only until 5 p.m. on Thursday, December 8. Any challenger must also sign a sworn affidavit and have it notarized.

The city party’s executive committee will then vet the requests from alleged disenfranchised voters and convene a tribunal to hear challenges. A final, uncontestable list of eligible voters will be posted by high noon on December 10 — the day before the caucus re-do.

Sounds simple. What could possibly (cough) go wrong?

“There’s no absolute way to ensure this is foolproof,” admitted Howard. “We have to have some element of trust that people will be honest. It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but we’re making it as tough as we possibly can for people to game the system.”

Why do I have this nagging sense that Ashe v. Weinberger could become Vermont’s Bush v. Gore?

Too Big to Fail?

If W.B. Yeats were around to write about the pending merger between Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service, he might have written this closing line to “Second Coming”: What rough beast, its hours come round at last, slouches toward Montpelier to be born?

The Vermont Public Service Board — the trio of state regulators charged with rubber-stamping, er, analyzing, the deal — has set an aggressive (by utility standards) hearing schedule to vet this multifaceted, $700-million-plus deal. Testimony is expected to end in less than five months.

If approved, nearly two-thirds of the state’s power market will be controlled by GMP’s parent company, GazMétro of Québec, which will wield significant sway over VELCO, the utility that manages the state’s power-transmission network.

With such high stakes, state Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) and 45 other consumers petitioned the PSB to hire an independent counsel to represent ratepayer interests. Their chief concern is a conflict of interest — or a perceived one — between the Shumlin administration and Green Mountain Power.

Department of Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller’s husband, Eric Miller, is a managing partner in the law firm that represents GMP and, as such, derives an indirect income from GMP’s payments to his firm.

Two weeks ago, the PSB rejected Illuzzi’s request but left open the possibility of an appeal once the DPS weighs in on the merger. Illuzzi plans to meet with Miller before deciding whether to fight on.

At least one of his petition’s signatories wants the PSB to appoint a special counsel — period.

In comments filed with the department last week, former DPS public advocate Sam Press wrote: “If the board passes up this opportunity, it would lend credence to the cynical popular perception that government is an insiders’ game rigged to benefit big business.”

*The online version of this article has been corrected. The original version incorrectly stated that Weinberger voted to build the garage, not issue bonds.