Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Preservation & Change: Finding the Balance

Campaign Announcement: Greg Guma, January 27, 2015
Two months ago, I began to look seriously at the race for mayor – the only public official elected citywide in Burlington -- attending meetings, meeting with community leaders, seeking counsel from friends. Some urged me on, but others wondered why anyone would consider such a thing, or suggested approaching the Progressive Party.


Once upon a time in Burlington, I was part of the movement that put progressives in power here. I ran twice myself for the City Council, as a Progressive and Democrat. But that was decades ago, and things have changed. In any case, Progressive Party leaders united behind Steve Goodkind, so the question became whether to run anyway. I waited, and listened, for about a month – and basically heard nothing.

What I mean is, nothing of consequence about the fast-tracking of various projects developing across the city – from the threat of another commercial center replacing a North End mobile home neighborhood to the looming, intensive development of 33 acres of irreplaceable open space owned by the financially-strapped Burlington College…
Nothing too about troubling, proposed zoning changes and gentrification plans in the South End that will drive out the innovators and artists who make the city special, and certainly nothing about low-key planning for another major hotel, this one right at the water’s edge. That project, hidden under the label “adaptive reuse and infill,” is reluctantly acknowledged on page 108 of a 113-page pitch known as PlanBTV.
Supporters urged me to reconsider, and more than that, they took to the streets and public events to see how others felt and collected enough signatures to place my name on the ballot as an Independent Candidate. In less than two weeks they did it. I am humbled by the support and ready now to give it my all.


During this campaign, I hope to share insights and lessons learned from over 40 years as an organizer, manager, and devoted lover of this place, the Queen City of Vermont. And also what I’m hearing these days – about outrageous housing costs and unmet neighborhood needs, preserving open space and raising local wages, resisting privatization and increasing participation and real accountability.
Why It Matters
One way or the other, this election will be a turning point. In the near future, decisions will be made that change Burlington for generations. I know Mayor Weinberger and appreciate his energy and sincerity. I also know Steve Goodkind and appreciate his service to the city as DPW chief under three progressive mayors. However, at this moment, with a developer in charge, the city is on an express train to gentrification and increased corporate penetration. But that doesn’t mean returning to the past or forgetting the lessons.
There is an alternative: to challenge complacency and question the rush to redevelop, to find sustainable solutions based on community values and balanced priorities, and to open up local debate on the big decisions ahead.
As I’ve been saying, we can’t just build our way out of problems. We need solutions that balance efficiency and growth with democracy and fairness, and create positive outcomes for all of us.
And to find them we need to ask more questions, get more answers and more people involved, to reclaim the right to make informed choices – the essence of democracy. But that means more openness, access, and accountability than we have been seeing.
I’ll also speak plainly about poverty, racism and war. These are also local issues. While I’m as proud as any Burlingtonian that our home is high on numerous best-of lists, that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the problems affecting the rest of the country – things like growing economic inequality, profiling, prejudice and discrimination, climate change, and the impacts of militarism – the latter most evident locally in the expected arrival of F-35s at the airport. Contrary to my opponents, I don’t think it’s too late to stop this boondoggle from making parts of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski virtually uninhabitable.
On this and other questions -- whether we can keep Burlington Telecom as a public enterprise comes to mind -- what the mayor says and does can make a huge difference. 
It’s also important to understand that Burlington has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Yet current redevelopment plans will make matters worse. Climate change is real, and so is our basic inter-dependence. What we do matters, here and globally. So, before we give the waterfront or other neighborhoods a gentrified makeover that increases traffic -- and further drives up rents, we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system – to anticipate and adapt to the resource and climate-related challenges ahead.
Transparency and Diversity
A new local agenda is taking shape, and with it new priorities and a list of needed policy changes. Yes, this election is about the future. But it is also about understanding the past -- coming to terms with missteps, rediscovering what has worked – and doing things differently. No more rosy forecasts that hide uncomfortable realities, no more ambitious boondoggles and secret deals. When it comes to transparency, talk can be cheap -- at first. But it becomes costly when things turn sour.
In that regard, press conferences don’t equal transparency, and taking questions at a coffee shop isn't actually accountability. Those are media events and photo ops; the mayor is good at both. But we are still waiting for open government.
We're also still waiting for affordable housing and livable wages. Thirty years ago we had a 1 percent vacancy rate and people spent half their income on housing. Unfortunately, those figures haven’t changed. It's time to try something new.
Once Burlington was known as a buttoned up, extremely white business town. Today more than 25 percent of public school students come from other cultures, races, and countries. It's time to look at the city and the world differently. That’s why I strongly support the ballot item on non-citizen voting and service of newcomers on boards and commissions. But the commission system needs more improvements, with an emphasis on fair representation and empowerment.
I’m also excited about the proposals coming from the south end -- defending citizen interests from exploitive development, they want to preserve protective zoning and the district’s cultural/industrial designation. I agree, and will oppose any pending zoning changes that threaten residents and businesses in this dynamic, creative economy district. 
That said, the problem isn’t government. But government is only part of the solution. The community, businesses and independent contractors, students, teachers, artists, and all the 21st century knowledge workers - they need to be heard, and both their success and well-being need to be higher priorities. The goal is engagement – how to cultivate and grow it as well as we attend to the tax base.
Targets and Limits
As a candidate, it’s easy to say that you have a better answer for every issue or problem. I know that I don’t. But I am curious and like to listen, and have enough experience to conclude that there are usually more choices than those in charge -- or those with special interests – like to admit. In the 1970s Burlington residents were told that if the Southern Connector and a waterfront hotel, civic center and condos weren’t built very soon, the economy would go “down the tubes.” It obviously didn’t happen. They also wanted kiosks on Church Street and thought mass transit and bike paths were irrelevant fantasies. 
Now we are told that Burlington Telecom’s troubles and the downgrade by Moody’s mean that all bets are off: there is no alternative to leveraging public assets and infrastructure to spur as much growth as possible. But what kind, how much, and at what cost? Do we really want to look like the eastern version of Vale, Colorado in a few years? A Target in downtown Burlington, as a desirable anchor for the latest makeover of our mall?  That says a lot.
To me, it says the mayor is unnecessarily painting a target on the city’s back – a target for speculators, too-good-to-be true corporate schemes and irresponsible, overheated development. I’m running for mayor to say, not so fast! Let’s take the target off Burlington’s back. Let’s slow down and set some reasonable limits. There’s no need for a fire sale. We can do better than that.
How? To begin, by opening up, redefining what is possible and deciding what we want – and don’t want– including whether we need some basic standards for large private partners, and also by talking frankly – about the values and resources we hope to preserve, and the policies and approaches we need to change.
I’m pleased and honored to take part in the upcoming debates and the March 3 election.
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