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July 11, 2013

After Public Forum, Winooski City Council Opposes Basing of F-35s

Winooski’s city council voted 4-0 Wednesday against basing F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport. The council will formally request that the Air Force take Vermont out of consideration for this round of basing decisions for the next-generation warplane.

The vote came after an hour of discussion by councilors before an audience of 30 people who came to watch the deliberations, virtually all of whom were opposed to basing the jets at the Vermont Air National Guard facility. On Monday, Winooski residents attending a public forum voiced overwhelming opposition to the basing plan. The council wasn’t accepting any additional public comments Wednesday.

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Councilor Seth Leonard, right, greets constituents after Wednesday's vote.

The council spent much of Wednesday's meeting piecing together a message to the Air Force using the framework of two documents it submitted last year in response to an environmental impact statement that ranked Burlington as a preferred basing location. It was unclear for much of Wednesday's meeting whether the council would simply submit an updated version of its previous comments — which were hesitant about but not outright opposed to the F-35 — or draft new ones.

The crowd erupted into applause, though, after Councilor Seth Leonard introduced language that took a clear stand.

Leonard read from a prepared document what he hoped the council would say: “In the interest of protecting the public health, quality of life, and economic rights of its citizens, the City of Winooski resolves that the Burlington Airport be removed from consideration for the current basing of F-35 fighter jets.”

In the end, the council voted to submit its new resolution to the Air Force before the public comment deadline next week. Councilor John Little missed both Monday and Wednesday’s meetings due to illness.

Leonard, the body’s newest member after his election in March, took a firm stand on the issue, advocating for stronger language from the get-go. The councilor told Seven Days that his freshness was helpful “because I had maybe most recently knocked on doors and talked to people.” He said the overwhelming message he heard from Winooski residents was that they did not want F-35s, which are four times louder than the Vermont Air National Guard’s current F-16s, flying overhead.

 

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Horace Shaw made this sign after Winooski Mayor Michael O'Brien's comments at Monday's meeting.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, it seemed the council could be stuck at a stalemate; Mayor Michael O’Brien and Councilor Sally Tipson both seemed hesitant to submit additional comments to the Air Force, while Leonard and Councilor Sarah Robinson favored a stronger stance. When they reconvened on Wednesday, though, it seemed everyone was on the same page.

 

“I think from a global perspective of how things changed in between now and then is we all had a lot of time to reflect on the facts that were presented, and that’s very important,” Leonard said after Wednesday’s meeting. The vocal opposition to the F-35s on Monday, he said, seemed to make a difference.

Mayor O’Brien said he thought Wednesday’s action was perfectly in line with last year’s resolution, which said the council would be unable to support the new jets until their concerns were addressed.

“We had formally requested that the Air Force not make a decision until we got answers to the questions,” O’Brien said. “We’re a year later. We haven’t got the answers that we asked for, so we took this step.”

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