Tuesday, September 13, 2011

UPDATE: Burlington Council Sustains Mayor’s Veto

Burlington’s City Council backed its administration in a series of decisions Monday night, climaxing with a vote that upheld Mayor Bob Kiss’s veto of an advisory resolution on community standards for climate change partnerships aimed at military contractor Lockheed Martin.

The once and future mayors?
Prior to the decision on the climate change standards, the Council heard from Lockheed opponents during a public forum, and approved other resolutions to increase salaries and reclassify jobs in the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), Burlington City Arts (BCA) and the Burlington Electric Department.  A resolution congratulating BCA for its accomplishments over the last 30 years passed with only one opposing vote.

In early August, after more than six months of study and local debate, the City Council adopted a community standards resolution, largely in response to public criticism of a partnership agreement signed with Lockheed Martin by the mayor last December. More than 50 local residents testified on the issue during public meetings, all but a few opposing the deal.

Kiss called the standards that emerged “bad public policy” and questioned whether most city residents actually support what he called a “restrictive and regressive approach.” In the veto message issued on September 6, he added that while the policy adopted by the Council may have contributed to Lockheed’s decision to pull out of the Burlington agreement, it is “a sorry achievement” that runs contrary to “building respectful municipal partnerships.”

The anti-Lockheed turnout at Monday’s session was considerably smaller than at prior meetings that have focused on the issue. Anti-Lockheed organizer Jonathan Leavitt attributed the low attendance to the fact that Kiss issued his veto only last week. Others noted that the standards were only advisory and echoed the platform of the local Progressive Party, and several expressed disappointment with what they consider an anti-democratic action.

Some Council members were offended by public comments that questioned the ethics of anyone who voted to uphold the veto, as well as suggestions that backing the mayor represented support for a “rampantly corrupt norm.” In a letter read to the Council, Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, the youngest member of the state legislature, argued that “community standards are what democracy is all about.”

Progressive Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who originally introduced the resolution, said the issue goes beyond one military contractor and charged that Kiss has provided “no real explanation” for his decision. Democrat David Berezniak concurred, pointedly telling the mayor that “this isn’t political theater.”

But Kiss found support from some Republicans and Democrats on the Council, including potential GOP mayoral candidate Kurt Wright, who also questioned whether the standards represent local opinion. In the end the vote was again 8-6, more than a majority but not enough to override the veto.

The resolution celebrating Burlington City Arts was less contentious, with only Democrat Ed Adrian declining to express appreciation for its 30 years of work to make the arts "available to all regardless of 'social, economic or physical constraints'." Two other Council members joined Adrian in opposing resolutions to upgrade several positions on the BCA staff.  He also opposed the creation of new positions in the Community Justice Center and salary adjustments for top staff in the Fire Department.

“We’re creating a cycle where people argue about who is getting raises,” Adrian said. Concerning BCA, he pointed to the absence of “reasonable explanations” about how public and private funds are handled. On the other hand, he acknowledged that “City Arts is just as important as the Fire Department.” Kiss called BCA a public-private partnership success story.

The Council’s vote upholding the mayor’s community standards veto is a setback for the “No Lockheed” movement that has emerged since the deal was announced. Last week, after Lockheed Martin said that it was pulling out of the arrangement, opponents held a meeting to celebrate their victory over the corporation. The next day Kiss issued his veto.

Thus far, local criticism has focused on the deal signed by Kiss and the support of Vermont’s congressional delegation for Lockheed’s F-35, a controversial and expensive aircraft that might be bedded at Burlington International Airport – if it is finished. Less has been said about an emerging, low-profile partnership between Lockheed subsidiary Sandia labs and Vermont schools and businesses.

According to Sandia spokesmen, US Senator Bernie Sanders has been working with them for several years to develop a partnership focusing on smart grid technology, solar energy and cybersecurity. So far, Sandia has received about $1 million in Department of Energy funding for Vermont student internships and visits to its home base in New Mexico by eight UVM professors. However, the financial benefits for Lockheed could be far greater in the long run as relationships develop with Vermont energy business, state government and UVM. Vermont recently received a $69.3 million e-Energy American Recovery & Reinvestment Act grant to fund a smart meter implementation program. 

While Sandia proceeds to develop projects and a satellite lab, however, the City of Burlington is having difficulty deciding how it should address climate change. Kiss has made it a priority and argues that companies like Lockheed have a role to play in reducing the US carbon footprint. “Lockheed was reaching out to work with a local municipality,” he wrote to the Council last week. “The failure to define and pursue potential climate change solutions is a lost opportunity far more than a moral victory.”

For opponents, on the other hand, one of the country's biggest military contractors, in the past accused of “systemic, illegal, and fraudulent behavior” by Sen. Sanders, is not an acceptable partner, and the mayor’s decision to veto the Council’s guidelines only makes matters worse.
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