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April 05, 2010

The State of the City? Muddled

IMG_0751 * Updated at 1:40 p.m. to reflect shuffling of candidates in race for board of finance *

Tonight, Mayor Bob Kiss delivers his annual State of the City address.

Kiss allies and detractors will be listening closely to if, and how, the mayor describes some of the challenges of the past year, and if he'll downplay those in order to highlight a few of his administration's successes.

In the past year, ongoing regulatory probes and court cases related to the secretive financing of Burlington Telecom by his top aide, Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold, have usurped much of the attention, and time, of the city council, city employees and the public.

The announcement of two major businesses — General Dynamics and Gallagher, Flynn and Company — leaving the city to suburban locales has caused some concern, given they'll take with them 500 jobs.

Any good news delivered by the mayor will likely be seen as a fig leaf over an undercurrent of mistrust in city hall, and in particular the mayor's administrative team.

The recent Town Meeting Day vote to repeal instant-runoff voting (IRV) — by a 52-48 margin — was partly seen as a referendum on the Kiss administration.

Also tonight, the mayor may get a glimpse at the kind of dynamic he can expect from the newly seated city council. Immediately following the Town Meeting Day votes — in which Progressives lost every contested race and a Democratic ally of Kiss was soundly defeated — led one councilor to call for Kiss to resign. Other councilors weren't ready to say the same, but several veteran councilors said it was time for the council to take a greater leadership position on key issues facing the city.

Before the big issues like the future of BT, the Moran Plant redevelopment, Champlain Parkway and other topics hit councilors' desks, they first have to elect a council president.

Councilor Bil Keogh (D-Ward 5), who served as council president for the past year, is expected to be reelected to that post.

The council will also determine the makeup of the all-important, five-member Board of Finance. The mayor, CAO and council president have automatic seats on the board. The other two slots are usually filled by members of political parties different than that of the council president.

But tonight, for first time in years, the city's Progressive Party may not have a councilor seated on the powerful Finance Board.

Tonight, the Burlington City Council will reorganize itself following the March election, in which Progressives lost a seat and now have only two members on the council: Ward 3 Councilors Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and Marrisa Caldwell.

It's possible no Progressive will be seated this time around on the five-member Finance Board, said Keogh.

Customarily, each major party has a seat on the Finance Board: one Republican, one Democrat and one Progressive. At times, an independent has been seated on the board instead of a Democrat or Republican, depending on the party affiliation of the city council president.

But, Keogh noted, given that the mayor and CAO have automatic seats, the Progs could effectively control the votes of the Finance Board despite having just one-seventh of the seats on the council.

That scenario is giving some councilors pause for concern, said Keogh, especially given the fiasco involving Burlington Telecom. Last year, CAO Leopold admitted that, even though he had briefed the Finance Board about BT's financial problems, he took it upon himself to OK a total of $17 million over an 18-month period from the city's checkbook to cover BT's debt.

Democrats, who are one vote shy of an outright majority, hold seven seats on the 14-member council, the Republicans three. There are also two independents.

Despite the odds, Mulvaney-Stanak is making a pitch to fellow councilors for a seat on the Finance Board.

"I am asking people to honor past practice of voting in council members based on the recommendation of each major party. I am also asking fellow councilors to be fair as we fill the seats," said Mulvaney-Stanak. "The political pendulum has swung many directions in Burlington over the years, yet past councils have done a decent job of being fair with balances perspectives on the council. I hope this new council will do the same. We shall see what happens."

Last year, Republican Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7) was on the board, but the GOP caucus has decided to let Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4), be their nominee this coming year. Wright previously served on the council and on the Finance Board when he was council president.

"I think it would be a bad precedent to break from tradition," said Wright, when asked if the third seat should go to a Progressive or independent. "The votes on the Finance Board are usually nonpartisan, and it's been a system that has worked well."

Wright said denying the Progressives a seat on the board, coupled with the recent flap over the Democrats quietly trying to hire a budget analyst and asking other councilors to help pay for him, sets a poor tone for the start of a new council year.

The third seat on the five-member board is the one councilors will either give to Mulvaney-Stanak or one of the two independents, Karen Paul (I-Ward 6).

Paul had expressed interest in being on the Finance Board when it was reorganized in 2009, and is again interested  in the post. Of all the city councilors, she is the one who actually has a financial background: The founder and president of Paul Financial Services, she is a financial planner and advisor. She's been one of the councilors most immersed in charting a new course for BT, was appointed to a special ad hoc team charged with examining BT's finances, and later was one of three councilors to serve on a "blue ribbon" panel dedicated to examining the city-owned utility.

Tonight, the newly elected and reelected councilors will be sworn in, including Wright, Mulvaney-Stanak, Paul, Keogh, Decelles, Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) and Ward 2 Democrats Bram Kranichfeld and David Berezniak. Berezniak was reelected to a two-year term, while Kranichfeld was elected to fill the remaining year of a term vacated by Mulvaney-Stanak when she moved out of Ward 2 in December.

Still, the major event of the night is Kiss' address to the city and council. Given the ripple effects that BT has had on the city's finances — its credit rating was downgraded and put on a 90-day watch by Moody's — it will be interesting to hear how Kiss characterizes the "state of the city."

Last year, the mayor delivered his state of the city on the eve of the House vote that overturned Gov. Jim Douglas' same-sex marriage veto.

Kiss also said this: "I am here tonight to let you know that the state of the city is good. We have cash reserves. We've been prudent as a city over the past three years."

No mention of Burlington Telecom's woes, even though his administration had known — for months by then — that it was in serious violation of its certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board.

And it was May of last year that the CAO and mayor met in private with the city council to brief them on BT's financial position — a meeting that many councilors say did not clearly describe just how bad things were for BT. The true revelations about BT's finances did not occur until late September 2009.

How time flies.

* Update * 

The race for the city's Board of Finance is shaping up to be quite a dynamic ballot. Since posting this earlier today, I've learned of three changes to the story:

1. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak is no longer a candidate.

2. Independent Sharon Bushor (Ward 1) is a candidate.

3. Democrat Nancy Kaplan (Ward 4) is also a likely candidate.

If Kaplan is chosen, it would give the Democrats two votes on the board, the administration two, and the Republicans one, as it is likely Wright will win a seat. Bushor, who is an independent, often votes with the Progressives on key issues. Paul

Should be an interesting tally to watch tonight, IRV or no IRV. I'll be Tweeting ...

Kurt Wright back on the Finance Committee? Correct me if I'm mistaken, but wasn't he on the Finance Committee AND president of the city council at the exact time all of the BT mess was going down?

Where was Kurt? Sounds like the fox wants back in the hen house. Please, journalists, ask Kurt to show how he'd do anything differently.

Karen Paul is a no-brainer on the FC. If she's not on, the council should just go home. And Nancy Kaplan would be great too. At least she puts Ward 4 residents ahead of her own political ambition, something you can't say with a straight face about her W4 colleague.

It is unlikely this years statement of the state of the city by the Mayor can be derailed as last year by the impending same sex marriage veto of the Governor, by any other issue statewide, even nuclear issues. Statewide budget issues cannot derail the Mayor from tackling Burlington problems head on either, or maybe it will be consolidating school Superintendent positions that the Mayor will tackle to avoid our troubles in Burlington.
The address must start and end with an admission of failed policies in City Hall of the overseeing of Burlington business by the Mayor and CAO.
The best way to start tonight's address would be by the Mayor announcing the resignation of himself and CAO Leopold so Burlington could really begin the process of moving forward with trusted leadership.
Harsh comments I know, but really the only way to start the healing process.

Shay is a prog lackey, and these blurt posts are becomming tiresome.

It would be nice if a 7days journalist asked a tough question, got under their skin, rocked the boat.

Instead, Shay loves rubbing elbows with councilors and other elected people. Total joke.

@Jason: That's so unfair. I actually do it all just to get on the TV. And, Charlie & Ernie & Lisa.

Seriously, on the BT issue, I first uncovered the use of taxpayer dollars in September:

And, was first to press the city on how the decision was made:

Heck, I even dubbed Leopold the "Loan Gunman." I thought that was kinda clever. And fitting.

I appreciate the critique though. We all need reminding once in awhile.

Shay loves rubbing elbows with councilors and other elected people

. . . just like any good reporter. An essential skill taught the first week of journalism class.

@ Morgan M: Sorry to burst your bubble, but I didn't attend journalism school. I know, shocker.

Come on Shay! If you really wanted to dig in you would do a nice piece on the approximate $50+ million the city is in the hole for given the BT fiasco and unfunded pension. Granted Bob did not cause the pension mess, but he and his "team" have totally ignored the problem over his term.

The city's credit rating and your taxes are going to go in different directions in the near term. Why is this not being addressed in any material way?

It seems that most of the Burlington based, Briggsy and Haik...have a real reticence to rpoert on financial matters. Is this due to lack of familiarity w/finance in general or that it is boring to the average reader. Higher taxes in general are not boring.

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