Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Regime Change in the People's Republic

By Greg Guma
Organization Day in Burlington is an opportunity for those leaving and joining local government to celebrate the transition with one another and members of the public. The agenda is normally brief and ceremonial, and the mood conciliatory, if not exuberant.
    With Democrat Miro Weinberger officially becoming the city’s 42nd mayor, this time was no exception. The ceremonies were held on Monday night, with a reception at 6 p.m. and swearing-in ceremonies at 7 in City Hall. 

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The formal agenda began with the selection of four escorts to accompany the new chief executive into the packed auditorium. The group chosen reflected the city’s complex balance of political power: Joan Shannon, a Democrat elected City Council President later in the evening; Vince Dober, one of two Council Republicans after the departure of Kurt Wright; Vince Brennan, one of three Progressives; and Independent Sharon Bushor, later appointed to the influential Board of Finance.
     In the epic local election that concluded on March 6 with Weinberger’s 57 percent victory over Wright and Independent Wanda Hines, Shannon had backed Weinberger, a fellow Democrat. Bushor, Brennan and Dober supported Wright. The upbeat mood in Contois Auditorium nevertheless telegraphed the message that it's time to move on and unite – at least for a while -- as the new administration grapples with troubling financial realities.
Judge William Sessions III swears in the new mayor.
     After he was sworn in by US District Judge William Sessions III, Weinberger explained, “We have an immediate budget gap and a number of long-term, unfunded obligations and liabilities that we can no longer kick down the road.”
     When the mayoral race began six months ago, there was “a mood of anger and anxiety about our future,” Weinberger recalled. But the local vibe “has already shifted dramatically. As we gather tonight our community is filled with optimism and a renewed sense of common purpose.”
     It’s an observation he makes frequently these days, reinforced by the recent campaign visit of Barack Obama. Weinberger talked with Obama and received a shout out during the President’s speech to almost 5,000 people at Patrick Gymnasium.
     To hit the ground running, Weinberger asked the new council to appoint Paul Sisson as Interim Chief Administrative Officer for the next three months. On almost any other occasion that would have involved an extended discussion of Sisson’s qualifications and a candidate interview with the Board.
     Republican Paul Decelles made essentially that point when proposing that the decision should be delayed for two weeks. “I think a more appropriate time would be at our next meeting, where the board of finance could look at Mr. Sisson's credentials, talk to H.R., have a work session, meet Mr. Sisson and then approve his confirmation," he argued.
     Sisson, who co-chaired Weinberger’s transition team and vetted other candidates for appointment, has also examined the draft city budget developed by the exiting Kiss administration as chair of the mayor’s budget team. A UVM graduate, Sisson spent 26 years with KPMG, a huge audit, tax and advisory services firm. By 1888 he was a partner, retiring in 2004. Since then he has been a self-employed financial consultant specializing in work with energy companies.
     Karen Paul, the Council’s other Independent, expressed the prevailing reaction. While she would have preferred to meet with the proposed Interim CAO before voting on him, "I do think that it is only fair that we give the mayor the benefit of the doubt."
     In the end only Decelles and Max Tracy, one of the two new Progressives on the city council, voted no.
The Leadership Team
Things went more smoothly for Shannon, who was elected Council President to replace Bill Keogh without a challenge. Paul said last week that she was planning to seek the post, but withdrew her bid, another sign of the conciliatory atmosphere after more than two years of displeasure with the previous administration.
     Paul will retain her position on the Finance Board, the only holdover from the previous leadership.
Wright receives kudos.
     Former Mayor Bob Kiss, who stepped down after two terms, did not speak during the ceremonies. Weinberger reached out instead to his main opponent in the race, Wright, who was seated directly behind him. Presenting Wright with a proclamation he thanked the retiring city councilor and three-time mayoral candidate for his contributions. Wright continues to represent Burlington in the state legislature.
     In his inaugural message Weinberger talked about “the paralyzing loss of trust between the Mayor’s Office, this council and the public,” but pledged “a new era of collaboration and cooperation between the Council and the Mayor’s office.  This is the only way we can make the progress we were each elected to achieve.”
     Many of the city’s financial challenges will be monitored most closely by the Board of Finance, a committee that includes the mayor, his just-appointed CAO, Council President Shannon, and three other councilors. While it may look like Weinberger has at least three of six votes secured, Shannon will be an ex-officio (non-voting) member.
     The other three members elected by the council – also without opposition, in an arrangement made in advance – were Paul, Sharon Bushor and Decelles. The latter two backed Wright during the campaign. Although Bushor often votes with council Progressives she was nominated by Republican Decelles, who was in turn nominated by Dober.
     For the first time in years the Finance Board will not have a Progressive Party member. To make decisions, however, the Democratic administration will need at least one non-Democratic vote.
Excerpts from a New Chapter     
Less than a month after winning his first race for public office, Weinberger touched on many of the same themes he and Wright stressed on the campaign trail --municipal projects stuck or stalling, too many children living in poverty, housing costs so high that they “threaten to force the middle class out of our city. Even amidst a deep national housing recession this chronic, decades-long pressure has not subsided.”
     Weinberger also acknowledged Burlington’s increasing diversity, calling it a “welcome trend” that can “make the community stronger” rather than divide it. The comment suggests a cultural and generational change that the recent election outcomes also reflect.
     Most of the speech reiterated well-worn campaign themes. Weinberger's message to the public and the press, for example, was the promise of “straight talk and engagement.”
     When questioned last week by the Burlington Free Press about whether meetings of his transition team were recorded and public, he had to admit they were not and noted, somewhat defensively, that such private meetings aren’t cover by state law.
     On the other hand, Weinberger also contended at the press conference to announce Sisson’s selection, “We intend to be an administration that is asking not “Can we protect this information, but can we make it public?’ That’s how we’ll go forward.”
     He also had encouraging works for the business community, the promise of “innovative partnerships” in a culture “where you continue to grow and thrive,” as well as for city workers. Despite being the CEO he chose to stress that he is also one of 600 city employees. “Tonight I become one of you,” he claimed.
     The main metaphor in the speech was the idea that Burlington is turning a page and “beginning a new, more hopeful chapter.” The underlying message is a call for teamwork and the promise to balance change with continuity.
      “As Vermonters, we know we must live within our means,” Weinberger said. “We will return to this combination of prudence and ambition that has served our city so well over the last 30 years.” It was subtle but unmistakable reference to the decades of Progressive administration that began in 1981 with Bernie Sanders.
     A related reference came near the end when he made another promise. “We will remain committed to fighting for the just society that proudly separates Burlington from so many other communities,” he said.
Welcome to (Occupied) Burlington      
The formal business was over in less than an hour, following by a reception in City Hall’s cavernous hallway. An extra-parliamentary encounter there with several members of the Occupy movement provided one more example of how different politics can sometimes be in Burlington.
      Rather than interrupting the transition ritual, or assuming how the new mayor will react to the movement, the activists waited for the reception, then presented Weinberger with a welcome basket and a homemade “ch’occupy” pie.
      Weinberger thanked them, and the crowd in the hallway – not just the activists – used the “people’s mike” to repeat the new mayor’s response. Like the earlier ceremonies the moment was relaxed and guardedly hopeful.
      The Occupy delegation also brought some “suggested commitments” for Weinberger’s administration to consider.  Highlights include at least one year-round shelter for those suffering from substance abuse related issues, submission of any proposed changes on the Church Street Marketplace to rigorous public review, a food garden in City Hall Park, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, anti-oppression training for the police, and publicly recognizing an upcoming May 1 mobilization, “The Day Without the 99%, when local Occupy supporters will join protesters worldwide.
      Since it was a night for celebration, however, no one pressed the new mayor on how he felt about the movement's 11 local proposals. Instead, Occupy activists plan to return for answers later this month, starting with the city’s position on upcoming May Day mobilizations in Burlington, Vermont and around the country.
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