Friday, April 27, 2012

Revolution & Transformation: African Lessons

May 2, 2012, 6 pm
The William Bross Lloyd Jr. Lecture
Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Toward Freedom
Program of African Studies, 620 Library Place, Evanston, Illinois
Prof. Horace Campbell, Syracuse University
with introductory remarks by Greg Guma, former TF Editor

     Sixty years ago at the height of the Cold War William Bross Lloyd Jr launched the newsletter Toward Freedom, one node in a network of international activists  that has carried the  vision of  a world ethic that honors the human spirit and the right of individuals to freedom of thought and creativity. 
     This 60th anniversary lecture will focus on the seismic changes in International  politics since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011.  Drawing from the inspiration of the youths of Tahrir Square Professor Horace Campbell will interrogate the call from Samir Amin to be audacious in conceptualizing alternatives to the political and economic dominance of the ruling one per cent. 
     Campbell will reflect on the rapid economic growth in Africa and the implications for the Union of the Peoples of Africa in the changed world economy.  In order to heal the planet from rapacious forms of economic relations and exorbitant consumption it is necessary to embark on a new system that enables equality and mutual understanding. Hence, there must be a quantum leap from the current neo-liberal system to a new social system that is not based on discrimination and hierarchies. Drawing from the present thrust for Reparations and Reconstruction toward a multi-polar world, the lecture will examine the multifaceted transformations necessary to rise beyond the linearity and concepts of ‘modernization.’
     The talk will challenge intellectuals in the academy to transcend old images and ideas of Africa with the call for boldness in formulating political alternatives to the existing system. A “humanist consensus” rather than a Washington, Beijing, or any other kind of consensus, is now necessary to work for world peace in a moment of crisis when the triggers’ of war are poised to engulf humanity into greater conflagrations. In this quest centers of learning will be encouraged to join the new process of re-education to break the dominance of the exploiters.
The Speakers
Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of Rasta and Resistance From Marcus Garvey to Walter RodneyReclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation; and Pan Africanism, Pan Africanists and African Liberation in the 21st century. His most recent book is Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA.
     Greg Guma met William B. Lloyd in the 1970s, succeeded him as editor of Toward Freedom in 1986, and helped to bring the organization to Vermont. He served as editor for more than a decade, expanding the publication's scope from the end of the Cold War to the start of the digital age. In Burlington, the state’s largest city, TF found a second home that has nurtured the publication and its educational work for the last 26 years.
     Greg's introduction will feature a new documentary (see above) examining the events surrounding the launch of Toward Freedom as a Chicago-based international newsletter, the legacy of the Lloyd family dating back to Henry Demarest Lloyd, and the publication's accomplishments over 60 years. In person he will also recount TF's early coverage of colonial struggles and the non-aligned movement, writing by Lloyd and others on independence movements, and the relevance for our time.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Diversity Plan Spotlights Race Debate

As most students went to classes at Burlington High School on Thursday morning about 40 students, most of them English language learners (ELL) from Somalia, gathered at the school's entrance for a surprise protest.

     Angered after seeing a newspaper article posted on a school bulletin board that described them as “statistical outliers” who lagged behind, they overcame embarrassment and delivered their message with youthful energy and creativity. They feel unfairly judged by outdated tests and object to statistical analysis that correlates poverty with poor academic performance.
     They also made it loud and clear that, despite any progress or the promises of change ahead, racism remains a real and persistent problem in local schools.
     Their goal, chanted while marching around school property, was to “end racism at BHS.”

     When the findings of the Diversity and Equity Task Force established by the Burlington School District were released last October Vince Brennan was almost as optimistic.
     As Task Force Chairperson and a Progressive member of the City Council he saw in the year-long effort the “noble ideal of building a better future.” Six months later what he sees instead is “fear and a loss of hope for change.
     Last Monday, during the city council’s first working session with the new Weinberger administration, he had some strong words for BSD Superintendent Jeanne Collins after a report was delivered by school officials on the new strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion.
     In a commentary submitted to the Burlington Free Press in late March – but not published – Brennan questioned whether Collins was “really being true to her words about free speech or is picking and choosing who to silence.”
Councilor Vince Brennan
     The school system needs “new leadership,” Brennan concluded. He was calling for the superintendent’s replacement because she had declined to intervene after Math teacher David Rome issued a pointed refutation of the report’s findings.
     Brennan’s commentary was written in response to a Burlington Free Press op-ed that said he was wrong to criticize Collins for not speaking out about Rome’s rebuttal. The teacher’s questioning of statistics and conclusions cited as the basis for the school system’s strategic plan undermined the report’s initial public reception and has raised fresh questions about racism in the schools.
     Brennan insists he does not want to silence Rome, despite suggestions in the press that it is a free speech issue. But he does think that “not participating with the Task Force while it was assembled and then condemning the whole process after it was accepted is exercising what researchers call ‘privilege’ based on race.” 

Disparities and disagreements

Schools in Burlington are considerably more diverse than most in Vermont.  Students of color—Asian, Black, Latino, Native American and Multiracial—make up 27 percent of student body, according to school district figures. About 15 percent are English language learners from other countries. Over 60 languages and dialects are spoken by their families. Statewide, the ELL population has more than doubled in the last ten years.
     Minorities will be more than 50 percent of the US population by 2042. Although the white community may be able to maintain the status quo, the report argues, doing so will create “an inhospitable climate for students and families of color and will severely limit the potential of all our students to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.”
     With these and other trends in mind the Task Force attempts to make the case for rapid change with a portrait comprised of “statistically measured facts” about the local system.  The report states, for example, that the dropout rate for African American students is measurably higher, that “students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch” are 25 percent less likely to graduate, and that “there is nearly a one in five chance that an otherwise qualified student of color did not take the SAT or ACT exam.”
     It also notes that minority students “are extremely over-represented (60%) in being punished through out-of-school suspensions,” and although students of color make up 27 percent of the student body, they represent only 13 percent of those passing Algebra 1.
     The strategic plan that has emerged from this analysis involves top-to-bottom change in educational policies. That includes ongoing training and professional development for all employees, hiring more people of color along with “culturally competent” staff, leadership and accountability by the school board and administration, increased transparency, and incorporation of a “multicultural mindset” into curriculum, hiring and other policies that “values cultural pluralism and affirms students from all backgrounds.”
     In a section on what needs to be done during the next year to change the local climate, the primary objective is to “infuse the district with the message that the social and educational climate in our schools requires urgent attention to erase many negative stereotypes, subtle and overt behaviors, assumptions, and decisions that favor conventional, white upper middle class Judeo-Christian values and beliefs.”
     Rome’s response focuses mainly on statistics he has found inaccurate, but he also calls the report’s references to Judeo-Christian culture inflammatory and divisive. “The use of this phrase is truly an insult to the professionals who work with individuals at BHS to make the school as inclusive and welcoming to as many students as possible,” he writes. At least one other teacher has publicly agreed with him.
     Rome’s central argument is that factual errors in the report have produced “false conclusions leading to a reaction by the Board and community members that the school system is badly flawed and in need of drastic repair when, in fact, it is doing a remarkably fair and equitable job.”
     The Task Force cites a 5 percent dropout gap between African American and White students, but Rome notes that only one African American dropped out of the senior class last year. He adds that it is unfair to expect newcomers to the country to graduate within four years. On math performance he argues the figures actually indicate improved course completion for students of color. He also disputes suspension statistics cited in the report.
     Sara Martinez De Osaba, director of the Vermont Multicultural Alliance for Democracy, sees such criticisms as an attempt to “negate that there are disparities.” Like Brennan she describes Rome’s critique as an example of “white privilege.”

Developing the new roadmap

The process that led to the new plan began in 2008 with an attempt by the board to define diversity. “We are a community of many cultures, faiths, abilities, family constellations and incomes, birthplaces and aspirations,” said the resulting statement. “The depth and richness of this diversity is our strength when we work toward a common goal.”
     The Task Force on Equity and Diversity was created two years later, and initially grappled with the hiring of a new principal for the Integrated Arts Academy. Since the district “faced extensive needs in recruitment and hiring of teachers and staff of color,” it focused in the early months on human resource questions. A Town Hall meeting and three other community input events helped to inform the work.
     After the report was completed and accepted by the school board last fall a town hall-style gathering was staged in February to present the findings and strategy. About 120 people attended. By then Rome had released his rebuttal and the local mood gradually turned less hopeful.
     According to the Task Force “troubling educational disparities exist in Burlington along race and socioeconomic status. They represent an ‘opportunity gap’ as well as a shortfall in the overall number of high school graduates and potential college grads.” The situation produces “inequalities of all kinds which in turn have multiple long-term effects.”
     BSD’s plan describes broad-ranging changes in leadership, human resources, climate and curriculum. Within the next year, for example, one objective is system-wide staff training aimed at creating an “anti-racist and culturally responsive curriculum to support all students.” The idea is to have teachers “consistently reference the multicultural nature of their teaching tools, noting the contributions and accomplishments of distinguished individuals from a variety of cultural, racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. “
      One example in the plan discusses teaching about westward US expansion. Rather than focusing on the perspective of hunters, pioneers, the beginning of the industrial age and the harnessing of natural resources, the report suggests that curriculum should look at the impacts on different groups and cultures, as well as the role of various institutions “in achieving specific outcomes.”
     Curriculum activities during the first year are expected to include an online resource guide for teachers; workshops and use of diversity coaches; advisory groups at each school; an Interdisciplinary Curriculum Guidebook that presents “the rationale for using an anti-racist, culturally responsive and socially just method of inquiry;” and development of working definitions for key terms like “anti-racist,” “culturally responsive,” and “social justice.”
     To jump-start that process the report includes a six-page glossary of terms. Defining “anti-racist education” it notes that racism is not only manifested in individual acts of bigotry but also in policies like “failure to hire people of color at all levels and the omission of anti-racist regulations in faculty and student handbooks.”
     Cultural competence involves “being aware of one’s own assumptions” and “understanding the worldview of culturally diverse and marginalized populations,” the report explains.
     Two key concepts are “institutionalized racism” and “privilege,” both of which came up during the city council’s review of the plan.
     The glossary explains that “institutionalized racism” is seen in “processes, attitudes and behavior which totals up to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantages people from ethnic minorities.”
     “Do you believe while privilege exists?” Brennan asked Collins during an extended question period during the council meeting. Absolutely yes, she answered. Ward 1 Democrat Ed Adrian agreed.
     But Ward 7 Republican Paul Decelles was troubled by the question and asked, “Could you explain what you mean by that comment you just made.” He didn’t get a direct response but the report includes a definition.
     White privilege, it says, “helps explain how white people – relative to people of color and who do not present as part of the white racial group – and despite their intentions, are ‘advantaged’ to access and opportunities over people of color and those who do not appear to be in the white racial group.”

Voicing frustration and dissent  

Faulty research and conclusions by the task force are pointing Burlington in the wrong direction to address the real problems, Rome argues. “Hiring teachers of color has little, if any, correlation to student performance, but hiring competent teachers, regardless of color, does."
     He also suggests that the district should focus on “improving the economic situation of lower socio-economic families and educating them about the link between academic success and their future.”
     Beyond questioning the statistics used as a rationale Rome also finds fault with the report for failing to mention areas of local success, a list on which he includes a higher rate of students of all colors going to college than the state average, a knowledgeable staff with  “a great amount of diversity and cultural experiences,” student resources like the Homework Center and Shades of Ebony, and “the conscious choice that most staff members make to work at BHS precisely because of the diverse student population and the high level of professionalism of the staff.”
     Rome also claims that both teachers and students were excluded from the task force report committee. “At no time were teachers interviewed or questioned for their expertise about the veracity of the comments made at the meetings or discussions in an effort to get their input for further discussion,” he charges. As a result the report’s release was “a blow to morale” that he claims has upset many teachers.
     As evidenced by the Thursday protest many ELL students at the high school are also frustrated and upset.  According to De Osaba, who put out a call to local activists to show up in support, students are offended by the suggestion that they are “statistical outliers.”  The term does not appear in Rome’s report, but she says that he has used the term in a hand out. Others claim that he has brought up the dispute in class.
     Like teachers who feel their efforts have been undervalued, students attending the protest were angry and disappointed by the sense they are being blamed for the school’s problems. The ELL curriculum used at the high school is outdated, they charge, and they don’t want to be judged on the basis of unfair testing.
     “BSD has been beleaguered with racism issues since the '80's,” De Osaba contends. She adds that tensions are increasing because many steps identified years ago by the school system have not been taken. “None of this is the fault of the African ELL students. They are not running the schools. 
     UVM faculty member Denise Dunbar, who also attended the protest, points to the emotional toll of social isolation and humiliation faced by students attempting to learn English and adjust to a new society. Some statistics in the plan may be off, she acknowledges, but the problems should not be minimized and cannot always be measured.
     Collins sees things similarly. There is room for debate about the math, she admits. But despite some suggestions that the report should be rescinded she continues to think the conclusions and strategies are on target.
     That position hasn’t been sufficient for Brennan or others who believe that failing to respond to criticism by Rome has undermined what the district is trying to accomplish and should be grounds for administrative change. De Osaba goes farther, charging that the administration condones the Rome’s report by not taking steps to refute or stop him.
     Collins insists that a greater concern is “silencing any voice in this important conversation.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Burlington Beat: Equity, Race & the Schools

Racial disparities in Burlington schools turned out to be the main event at the first working session of the City Council since a new mayor took charge. 
     Students of color are now 27 percent of the student body in public schools. According to a Task Force report more Black students drop out of school. They're less likely to take SAT tests and more likely to be suspended. The report is supposed to set the stage for a strategic plan to address diversity, equity and inclusion.

     On April 16 School Superintendent Jeanne Collins joined Board Chair Keith Pillsbury and staff members to outline some of the efforts that led to the report and its recommendations. But not everyone is satisfied. Some teachers say they've been excluded, and several residents at the Council forum pointed to ongoing problems. Here's a video report. A closer look at the recommendations and strategy will follow soon.
     FURTHER READINGTask Force Report on the Recommended Strategy for Diversity,Equity and Inclusion for the Burlington School District

Friday, April 13, 2012

Burlington: Crime, Treatment and "Impairment"

Burglaries and violent crime are on the rise in Vermont's Queen City, and the primary reason is substance abuse. That's what Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling told a Neighborhood Planning Assembly.
      During a lively panel discussion on April 12 Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan argued for a balance between accountability and treatment, and outreach team leader Matt Young warned about "serious functional impairment," which involves poverty, culture, entitlements, and mental health issues. Take a look...

“The numbers of the last three years for burglaries citywide look like this,” Burlington Police Chief Schirling reported early in the forum, “247 reported in 2009, 294 reported in 2010, and 380 reported in 2011. So, a substantial increase.”
     Two things are “in play,” he explained. “The first is intractable opiate and substance abuse addiction. Sort of secondary, but quite a bit further behind that, are folks that are I guess for lack of a better word, career criminals.”
     During a question period residents expressed support for police and corrections officials. But some also complained about noise and other “quality of life” offenses, and one resident said some of his friends and colleagues are “talking about leaving because it is at a tipping point.”
The discussion, held during a regular NPA meeting at Edmunds School near downtown, included Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, University of Vermont Dean of Students David Nestor, Champlain College Director of Residential Life Ashley Mikell, Community Corrections District Manager Debbie Thibault, Rain Banbury of Burlington Parellel Justice, and Matt Young, who heads the Howard Center’s street outreach team.
     Donovan agreed with Schirling’s general assessment and said substance abuse is becoming an epidemic in Vermont. “It’s not just a Burlington issue.”
     The prosecutor pointed to a recent comment by Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn that more people are dying in Vermont due to opiate overdoses than from highway fatalities. “And we’re a rural state,” Donovan added. “Our jails are full in Vermont. We have a corrections budget of $140 million and a recidivism rate, depending on who you ask, of over 50 percent.”
     Thibault reported that the number of people under Corrections Department supervision has actually decreased by 14 percent since last year. That is because treatment courts and rapid arraignment have been effective, she said.
     Probation officers, who work in specialized areas, currently have about 30 people on their caseloads.  “With a smaller caseload we can focus on more serious offenders,” Thibault added. She said that should allow more direct supervision, seeing people more often, and more work by community corrections officers.   
     In 2009 the violent crime rate in Burlington was 29 percent lower than the national rate average, according to FBI figures. But the property crime rate was almost 50 percent higher.
     Donovan said the solution is balance. “People who commit crimes must be held accountable,” he argued, “but we also have to look at the back end of putting people in jail” since they will eventually get out.
     “It’s in our collective interest to plan for that release,” he said.
     One obstacle is that Vermont’s treatment facilities have long waiting lists. “And it’s no secret what people are going to do when they’re not getting treatment. They’re going to burglarize, they’re going to rob,” Donovan said.
Young noted that even though treatment is available for most of those who want it, many people who feel disadvantaged “are disabling themselves when they are unable to find employment. They see other people getting disability and they believe a lack on employment opportunities means they are disabled.” The resulting frustrating leads to “acting out,” he said.
     Young said that the state defines this as “serious functional impairment,” while the Police Department and courts are seeing “severe and persistent functional impairment. This is very difficult to address. There is poverty involved, culture, entitlements, and mental health issues.”
Nestor acknowledged that although UVM students are sometimes the victims of crimes, “they may well be perpetrators of crime.” He added the university works with the police and service providers to hold students accountable for crimes committed off campus and get them into restitution programs.
     The list of common “nuisance” or “quality of life” offenses involving students includes noise, open containers and underage parties. Nestor estimates that UVM students are involved in about 250 off campus “infractions” a year. Drugs and alcohol are often involved.
     During the recent mayoral race Bram Kranichfeld, a city council member who sought the Democratic nomination, criticized UVM’s response to noise, vandalism and drug dealing with a memorable line. “Right now they have a more serious internal response to overdue library books than noise complaints,” he charged.
     Ward 6 NPA Co-facilitator Neil Groberg repeated the line as part of a question about whether local schools can do more to make students accountable.
     In response Nestor mentioned the question about whether the school could keep students from graduating if they get into trouble off campus. “We’re asked our legal counsel to look very closely at that,” he said, “and quite frankly, the words comes back that we really can’t begin to make that kind of nexus. We are certainly doing things to hold students accountable.”
     If students don’t pay parking tickets, for example, Nestor said the university checks ticket lists against campus registrations and contacts the students. “We talk about the expectation that the institution has for them to be good citizens,” he said. “We’ve been able to get some good results.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Burlington: Losing Ground on Climate Action

The Burlington Planning Commission met this week to look over a new Climate Action Plan calling for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. But emissions actually increased 7 percent locally from 2007 to 2010. 
     The Vermont city has been working on climate issues for more than a decade. According to consultants the top three strategies are more energy efficient homes and commercial buildings, and less driving.

Burlington’s Climate Action Plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Reaching that goal means a 1.5 percent annual drop for the next eight years. The goal was set in 2008 after the city conducted a local inventory.
     Nevertheless, the 2012 update of the plan, which incorporates the results of a new inventory conducted by consultants in 2011, reveals that emissions actually increased 7 percent overall from 2007 to 2010. Emissions traceable to city government activity rose 15 percent, while the community’s emissions went up 6 percent.
     “Our transportation emissions did not decease, they didn’t hold steady, they actually went up 22 percent,” noted Burlington Planning Commission member Lee Buffinton on Tuesday at a public hearing on the plan. “You really have to dig through to even find that.”
     The Commission called the hearing to review the new findings and strategies, which are slated to become part of a revised Energy Chapter in the Municipal Development Plan. Future city projects and programs affecting transportation and development will have to conform to the standards in the plan. That includes zoning, subdivision regulation, impact fees and capital improvements.
     In 1998 Burlington’s City Council formed a Climate Protection Task Force and passed a resolution to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels. An 18-month process led to the city’s first Climate Action Plan, adopted in May 2000. A 2007 inventory showed that Burlington generated 397,272.4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). The goals were a 20 percent reduction by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, which would require an annual 2 percent decrease.
     In 2009 Burlington used American Recovery Act funds to hire Spring Hill Solutions, a clean energy consulting firm, to prioritize more than 200 “mitigation actions” generated by eight working groups during a extensive community process. The resulting plan is expected to become a framework for measuring and reducing greenhouse emissions and other climate change impacts.
     According to Spring Hill, three approaches offer Burlington the largest “carbon bang for each investment buck;” in other word, the greatest potential for both carbon reductions and cost savings. They are the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which provides property owners with help making energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements; reducing the number of miles driven by local residents by combining trips, telecommuting, carpooling and using alternatives to the automobile; and requiring any new commercial construction to follow performance guidelines that reduce energy use by at least 20 percent.
     “Collectively, these three strategies comprise nearly half of the estimated carbon reductions and will save the City, citizens and other stakeholders more than $14 million each year,” the Plan states. Implementing all 17 of the strategies identified would produce a 12 percent reduction in emissions from the 2007 level.
     The inventory of city government indicates that while emissions from electricity decreased, those from natural gas rose by 25 percent. Increased fuel use by the city’s vehicle fleet also affected the total. For city workers, “the average commute distance rose to nearly 13 miles (one way) in 2010 and 75% of employees drove alone to work,” the document notes.
     Among the bright spots is Burlington’s municipal electric department, which has a tradition of seeking “clean power mixes and providing energy efficiency programs.” This has resulted in lower emissions from the BED grid. New England’s grid “provides cleaner electricity than the National Grid, but not as clean as the Burlington Electric Department Grid,” the plan says.
     Progress is also evident at the Burlington International Airport. Consumption of both electricity and natural gas has decreased, although emissions went up by 3 percent. In the last three years the airport has pushed energy efficiency by replacing lighting, air conditioning and heating equipment, and upgrading to digital controls.
     Emissions from electricity and natural gas also dropped in the community. But transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas. “With emissions increasing by almost a quarter since 2007, much work needs to be done in this sector, including changing habits and enacting policies,” the plan concludes.
City of Burlington - Community Emissions by Source
     Of total community emissions 51 percent came from transportation in 2010, “indicating that a reduction in annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by Burlington residents could have the biggest impact on helping the city meet its emissions reduction target.”
     Planning Commissioners also expressed concern about the absence of any reference to climate justice or equity issues in the plan. The omission, initially noticed by Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, led Commission Chair Peter Potts to suggest that the public hearing remain “open” until the planners meet on May 8.  In the meantime, he asked Planning and Zoning staff member Sandrine Thibault to research equity and other lingering questions for a subsequent discussion.
     “I really commend the city of Burlington for doing this,” said Nathaly Agosto Filion, who attended the hearing. Fillion, who works for the Montpelier-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, pointed to a recent study indicating that, in tracking the amount of emissions reductions, “the most important thing is the buildup of community engagement.”
     The Burlington plan focuses on economic and emission impacts of various strategies, but does not go into other potential benefits such as increased water quality, improved soil retention, improved health and safety, or new educational opportunities.  
     Once the plan is approved changes in government policy will be facilitated by the Burlington Sustainability Action Team, formed by Mayor Kiss in 2008. Among other tasks the team is expected to make sure this plan and other municipal rules are consistent.
     Beyond the three top priorities high impact strategies include putting solar PV panels on school building roofs; retiring five percent of government’s vehicle fleet and replacing a quarter of the city’s vehicles with hybrids; increasing the urban tree canopy by planting 588 trees a year; and a digester system for solid waste that generates electricity and heat, reduces emissions and creates a bi-product that can be sold as bulk compost.
     Copies of the 2012 Climate Action Plan are available online or from the City of Burlington's Department of Planning and Zoning. 

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. 

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.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Burlington Beat: Miro's First Steps

Weinberger Picks an Interim CAO

One day before taking office as Burlington's new mayor Miro Weinberger announced a key pick -- his choice for the city's chief administrative officer. He chose Paul R. Sisson, a professional audit manager who he met via the ECHO science center on Burlington's waterfront. Sisson, who recently co-chaired the new mayor's transition team, said the top priorities were a balanced budget, a review of departments and systems, and protecting the city's credit rating.

...Then holds a Pre-Inaugural Party

After announcing his pick for city CAO Burlington's mayor-elect held a celebratory party for friends and supporters in a new wing at ECHO, the city's lake aquarium and science center. Two days after meeting President Obama, Miro Weinberger talked about a sense of optimism he has been feeling, pointed out City Council newcomers and ex-governor Kunin in the crowd, and accepted a gift from the ECHO staff for his volunteer work.