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June 26, 2012

New CEDO Director Wins Grudging Support From Burlington Progs, Faces Challenges

IMG_1620The Burlington mayor's office and the Community and Economic Development Office, both located in City Hall, share a connection that is symbolic as well as physical. CEDO is in fact a creation of the mayor, having been established by Bernie Sanders in 1983 as a means of implementing progressive plans for the Queen City.

This signature initiative on the part of the city's socialist leader became the catalyst for many of the Progressive Party's proudest achievements. And with the exception of two years of Republican rule in the mid-'90s, CEDO has always been run by prog-ish figures — first, Peter Clavelle (who went on to become mayor); then Michael Monte, who held the post both before and after the Republican interregnum; and most recently Larry Kupferman, who ran the office during most of the Kiss administration. So, losing control of CEDO has been almost as traumatic for the Progs as losing the mayor's office.

The era formally ended last night when the city council approved Mayor Miro Weinberger's nominee Peter Owens (pictured) as CEDO director. The vote was unanimous, with all three Progressive councilors affirming their support. Behind the scenes, however, some Progs were unhappy that one of their own, CEDO housing director Brian Pine, was passed over for the job.

Vince Brennan, a member of the council's Progressive trio, said in an interview on Tuesday that Weinberger need not have gone so far afield to find a highly qualified replacement for Kupferman; Owens is an urban designer in White River Junction. "We could've gotten somebody right in our own backyard," Brennan said in reference to Pine, a Progressive former councilor who has worked at CEDO for almost 15 years.

Owens, who says he's a registered Independent, suggested in an interview last evening that "it wouldn't make sense" for the new Democratic mayor to pick a Prog for a post that's seen as expressive of an administration's political identity.

Owens also implied that CEDO is in need of a shake-up. Asked about his plans for the office, Owens was noncommital in most respects, but he did vow that "the biggest change is going to be in reinvigorating the office." He said he wants to infuse CEDO with "the kind of enthusiasm and optimism I remember." As a landscape architect in Burlington in the 1980s, Owens worked on CEDO-associated projects such as the Community Boat House and the lakefront bike path.

The new director, who graduated from Middlebury College in 1980, may find it hard to boost morale as he confronts difficult budgetary and, potentially, staffing issues. About a fifth of CEDO's $5.8 million budget comes from federal funding sources that are being sharply reduced. The Community Development Block Grant program, for example, supports 7 of CEDO's 32 staff positions and currently provides the office with $1 million — about 23 percent less than CEDO received a few years ago.

"It's been very clear that the federal gravy train is drying up," Owens says. But he adds that he doesn't yet know how to respond, other than by "looking for other sources of revenue."

Asked by Progressive councilor Max Tracy for his thoughts on Burlington's economic and racial mix, Owens noted that he and his family had lived in San Francisco, a city of considerable diversity. "One of my greatest regrets about [currently] living in Hanover" is the homogeneity of that New Hampshire town, Owens added.

"I expect to be out walking the neigborhoods" of Burlington, Owens said. "It's a different town than when I was here 30 years ago."

Last night's unusual degree of Contois comity extended to the council's response to Weinberger's proposed budget for the city, which includes a slight decrease in property taxes not related to school funding. The budget was adopted unanimously, with Ward 7 Republican Vince Dober noting that he was casting his first affirmative vote for a city budget in his three years on the council. "I've been asking for a decrease in taxes, and you guys did it," Dober said, nodding toward Weinberger and interim Chief Admnistrative Officer Paul Sisson. "Thank you, guys."

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