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April 02, 2012

14 Questions for Miro Weinberger Before He's Sworn in as Burlington's Next Mayor

Miro 1Tonight at Nectar's is "Metal Monday," where for $5 you can hear the skull-splitting sounds of Boatman's Lament, Skrogg and Brave the Vertigo.

The opening act? On the big screen, Miro Weinberger's inauguration as Burlington's 38th mayor.

Weinberger will be sworn in as the Queen City's new boss — the first Democrat to occupy the corner office since 1981 — at 7 p.m. in city hall. The mayor-elect's peeps have reserved Nectar's for any overflow crowd, where the event will be live-streamed by Channel 17.

Even before it's official, Weinberger is putting his team together. On Sunday, he named Paul Sisson, a Burlington financial adviser and CPA who worked for KPMG, as interim chief administrative officer — one of the most powerful posts in city hall. The temporary appointment extends through June 30.

Seven Days contributor Kevin J. Kelley caught up with the mayor-elect last week at Maglianero Cafe on Maple Street, where Weinberger came dressed in a black suit jacket, white shirt and no tie. The talk ranged from Burlington's budget problems to Weinberger's feelings on a Church Street smoking ban. The mayor-elect also told Seven Days he and his wife have applied to send their daughter to first grade next fall at a Burlington public school — in the Old North End. She is currently in kindergarten at a private school in Williston

SEVEN DAYS: You’re bound to have something of a political honeymoon when you take office. Is there a 90-day or 100-day window for you to take major actions that will be harder to take later on?

MIRO WEINBERGER: Yes, June 30 is a significant date. We need to pass a balanced budget by then.

The 90-day window also relates to what I’ve said about making a decision on the Moran Plant by then. It’s gone on long enough. We need to decide what to do there. The financial consequences to the city will be significant no matter which way I go on Moran.

There’s already been substantial amounts of time and money invested in the plan. That’s something we need to consider. And I can say that other than the budget, I’ve spent more time on Moran than any issue. It’s a highly complex situation and it’s going to be an important decision for the new administration.

SD: Have you looked thoroughly by now at the city’s budget? Is the picture worse, better, the same as you’d thought earlier?

MW: The Kiss administration released substantially more information to us the day after the election. One significant difference is that the Burlington Telecom settlement [with CitiCapital regarding payments due] means that $400,000 in revenues the Kiss administration assumed to have for the next budget will actually not be available. That changes the challenge facing us from a $700,000-or-so shortfall to one that’s over $1 million.

I’ve not reached conclusions about how to handle this. My time line is to make decisions on it by the end of April. I will be looking primarily at the four biggest departments: police, fire, parks and recreation, and public works. I’ll be holding extensive meetings with each of those department heads.

SD: Can you possibly find $1 million in economies without having to lay off any personnel?

MW: I don’t know yet. I haven’t reached any conclusions. One factor is that I’m optimistic that the initial estimates of revenue for the city that were made in December may prove to be conservative. 

SD: Which jobs are you going to fill immediately?

MW: Mayoral assistant, [Community and Economic Development Office] director, city attorney and chief administrative officer.

SD: Do you plan to make any additional appointments? You can’t name other department heads because the respective commissions do that, right?

MW: No, there was a charter change in the late ‘90s or thereabouts that results in a stronger-mayor form of government, with less power for the commissions. It’s a fundamental change in how city government is run. Because of that, this transition is going to look different than what we’re used to seeing.

All department heads have one-year appointments that end on June 30. The exception is human resources and tax assessor which go for two years. I’ll be asking each department head who’s interested in staying to submit a letter outlining their reasons and their plans.

SD: What criteria will you consider in deciding whether to retain a department head who worked for Bob Kiss?

MW: It won’t be based on their having worked for Bob Kiss. I’ll consider their qualifications and abilities, their energetic commitment to working in city government. I’ll also look at their willingness to be held to performance standards that we’ll be developing.

SD: Are you in favor of raising the mayor’s salary and those of some other city officials, as had recently been proposed to the Finance Board? [Currently, the mayor’s salary stands at $99,676.]

MW: I think the mayor’s salary level is generous already. We’re still in a period in which the people of Burlington are living in difficult economic conditions. The incomes of Burlingtonians have been absolutely flat since 2008. I don’t think it’s appropriate to raise the mayor’s salary in those circumstances. 

SD: What about the proposals for other salary increases? The argument is that it can be hard to attract top-quality candidates because Burlington doesn’t pay as competitively as some places.

MW: It is critical to get people who are as strong as possible for those jobs. And salary does play a role in that. We won’t shy away from asking the city council to provide competitive salaries.

SD: How about the proposed downtown smoking ban that Mayor Kiss vetoed? What’s your position on that?

MW: I’m not in favor of the ban as it was proposed. It’s interesting that it was one of the issues I heard the most about on the campaign trail. There was opposition to the ban throughout the city, something on the order of 10 to 1.

SD: What’s your view of the proposal coming before the city council to strengthen trespassing prohibitions on the Church Street Marketplace?

MW: I haven’t made a decision on that yet. I am eager to engage in further discussion of it, with a vetting of it in terms of a constitutional review. It’s true there are some fairly acute issues facing us on the Marketplace, and we do have to take some action in regard to them.

SD: What are you going to do with your reserved parking space on Main Street? Will you give it to CarShare Vermont to use?

MW: I have gotten a call from CarShare about that. There’s talk of using the CarShare pod on St. Paul Street for the farmers market when City Hall Park is being worked on this summer. That’s something we have to look at. I haven’t agreed to give up that space. But I do intend to walk to work as much as I can.

SD: This is sort of a personal question, but are you going to enroll your daughter in the Burlington public school system? She’s in kindergarten now at the Bellwether School in Williston where your wife works. Will you keep her there for first grade?

MW: We’ve applied to have her start first grade in the magnet schools here: the Integrated Arts Academy at Wheeler or the Sustainability Academy at Barnes.

SD: Not Edmunds? That’s your neighborhood school.

MW: Edmunds is a great school, but we regard the arts curriculum as very appropriate for our daughter.

SD: What do you expect from Occupy Burlington? Do you think they have something important to say? Can your administration find a way to accommodate Occupy?

MW: I went to one of Occupy Burlington’s general assemblies, and I was very impressed by both the substance of what they’re saying and by their process. They’re giving important attention to the dramatic inequalities in this country. I’ve got great respect for their remarkable way of communicating as a group.

At the same time we do have laws that need to be enforced without bias against anyone in Burlington. So I will welcome a conversation with Occupy about how we can work together.

 Photo credit: Courtesy of the Miro Weinberger campaign for mayor.

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