Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Meet the candidates for Burlington mayor

Four people’s photos are placed together
Courtesy and Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Burlington’s mayoral candidates are, from top left, clockwise, Chris Haessly, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, Will Emmons and Joan Shannon.

This Town Meeting Day, Burlington residents will have a momentous choice to make who should be the city's new mayor. For the past 12 years, that position has been held by Democrat Miro Weinberger. He's not seeking a fifth term, opening the city to the possibility of electing the first woman mayor in its history.

As Vermont's largest city, Burlington has about 45,000 residents. It's one of the centers of the state's economy and a popular destination for out-of-staters. Burlington also faces a number of challenges that are mirrored in towns and cities across the state — a severe housing shortage drug addiction and widespread concerns about crime.

Burlington voters will decide the mayor's race using ranked-choice voting. The ballot allows voters to select their first choice of the candidates, as well as any second or third choices. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes in the first round, there will be an instant runoff.

Democratic candidate Joan Shannon and Progressive candidate Emma Mulvaney-Stanak were interviewed on Vermont Edition, where they also answered questions from the public. Vermont Public interviewed William Emmons and Christopher Haessly separately; the audio from those interviews is embedded below with each transcript.

A woman sits near a window
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak is the Progressive candidate for mayor of Burlington and currently a state representative.

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak

State Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak is a Progressive representing the Chittenden-17 district in the House of Representatives. Prior to her tenure in the Statehouse, she served on the Burlington City Council representing the Old North End neighborhood. She was also the chair of the Vermont Progressive Party. She founded a social change consulting business in 2018. She spoke with Mikaela Lefrak on Vermont Edition. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: As we cover the 2024 elections here at Vermont Public, we're using what's called a Citizens Agenda approach, where we've asked our listeners to tell us what issues we should be covering. So we're going to start with a question here from that Citizens Agenda. And it's from Harold, who asks, “Is the City of Burlington in a time of crisis or a time of transition? And how does the term you select shape your platform?”

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: I love that first question. And as someone who was a labor and community organizer for most of my career, I think participation is a great way and I love the citizen agenda framework. And what a great first question, because I think it offers such a different way to think about Burlington and what is facing Burlington. I would probably say it's a little of both. It's both in a crisis moment, but in a transition, to look at how we really frame and understand the challenges facing Burlington, we have a lot of economic systems and structural systems that have been failing in the state for years now, and I'm sure we'll talk about it, but it includes housing and the opioid crisis, and the breaking down of our health care system, which most importantly includes our mental health care system and people's lack of ability to navigate that, and to just simply get their basic needs met.

And so what we see in the streets of Burlington is deep suffering, and I have such compassion and an understanding that we do have this moment to transition from a status quo within how city leadership has been addressing things — because clearly it has not been working, I've lived in Burlington for nearly 20 years. I've never seen things unravel so much as they have. And so I think this is an opportunity to think about it as a transition to what else is possible. Where are the opportunities for us to bring our community back together, and to really collaborate and to find compromise and to work together, most importantly, amongst city leaders, but also all the incredible stakeholders and folks who care deeply about our city to move us forward?

Mikaela Lefrak: As many of our Burlington listeners know, in 2020, the Burlington City Council voted to cut down on the size of Burlington police force. This was a push led by members of the Progressive Party. And in the years since there has been an increase in some types of crime in the city, as well as a broader backlash against the reduction in police. Now, representative, you weren't on the City Council at the time. Do you think there should be more armed police officers in Burlington than there are today, and why?

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: So this is one of the biggest questions. And for me, when I talk about safety in Burlington, I very consciously talk about community safety, because it's so much bigger than one entity. And it's bigger than what we do with police. But to specifically police — because police have a critical role to play in our comprehensive community safety system. So when folks call, they need to get the response that they need for the kind of help that they need. And so police play a critical role.

I am an evidence-based decision maker. I do this in the Statehouse every day in my day job. And so we did a critical study out of the work that came out of 2020, which was led by both Democrats and Progressives and signed by the Democratic mayor — that big decision to do community safety differently was a bipartisan effort. And so for me around police, they put a study for the CNA report, and that study really talks about the right-size Police Department for sworn officers, but that study also goes into some other critical things about our police system. And that includes the need for bringing on social workers. It talks about culture, it talks about policies that need to be addressed within the city, within the police department in particular. And for me, it also begs a question around leadership.

We have a lot more work to do than simply adding more officers.
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak

And as a former labor organizer, I want to make sure we have a vibrant, healthy police department that we can be proud of, that the folks who work there who do those critical jobs can be proud of. And we have a lot more work to do than simply adding more officers. We do need a right-size police force. We're not there yet. All police departments around the state have been having a hiring challenge for years now. And for us to really understand what it will take to both recruit and retain these critical police officers takes a much wider understanding of what it takes to have a police department that's responsive, that's also engaged in the community in the ways we need it.

Mikaela Lefrak: You said we need a right-size police force. To be clear, do you think there should be more armed police officers in Burlington than there are today?

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: Well, we're not at the allocated number of police officers right now. And so the CNA report talks about 87 sworn officers. I think that's definitely in the right zone. That report is three years old, though. So I would want to make sure to update based on current information we have and current needs we have.

The other piece we don't fully have staffed out yet, though, are those social work positions. And I also look at our street outreach team, which has for 20-plus years done critical work around deescalation and responding to critical behavior issues and whatnot in the center city. We haven't increased the funding for that critical part of the mosaic, if you will, of response for years. And I think we have to have a comprehensive system because it's not appropriate to send a sworn police officer to every call.

There was something that happened in my neighborhood just the other night that involved someone with a mental health crisis going on. And we don't have yet the medical, the medical health professionals who can respond in a crisis like that. And to me, that's a big disservice to the city. And we shouldn't be sending police officers unless there's something related to violence or threat in those kinds of scenarios. We need to send the right professional to support that person, deescalate, and make sure there's not a ripple effect of additional harm and escalation, which happened in some regard to this event the other night.

Political signs are seen in the snowy yards of a neighborhood street.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Signs for Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and Joan Shannon, who are competing in Burlington's mayoral race. are decorate front yards in Burlington on Feb. 20, 2024.

Mikaela Lefrak: Your opponent, Joan Shannon, has said she would reappoint Police Chief Jon Murad, would you?

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: Well, first of all, that's a post-election decision. For me, I am a big believer in continuity of government. After a 12-year incumbency, I think it's really important, especially with all of these challenges facing Burlington, that we have stable leadership. And I'm going to have a very clear conversation with every department head that's about where is their vision, what is their leadership style, I want to talk to the rank-and-file within departments and see how things have been going. I think it's a bit it's a two-way street with every department head to understand what they see as the needs and opportunities in each department. And I want to make sure I have the leaders who have the humbleness and the humility to know that they sometimes don't get things right, but also most importantly, can think creatively and in a collaborative way to help move the city forward. And if leaders of all the departments have that align with the vision I'm setting for Burlington, then we can find a way to work together.

Mikaela Lefrak: Well, let's move on to our next topic, which is the housing shortage – top of mind for many Vermonters and many Burlingtonians. We got a question from Keith via the Citizens Agenda. And Keith asks, “Would you encourage and support UVM, the University of Vermont, to house more of its undergraduates on campus as a way to address the city's housing shortage?”

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: Another great question, I love the Citizen Agenda style. And I think it's actually it's how I sometimes do things with social media as a state legislator, it really inspires great engagement from folks in real time engaging with their policy leaders. So for housing, and specifically to UVM, yes, part of the trends that have happened over the last 20 plus years or so, student enrollment has increased at UVM. And so that creates more pressure on the surrounding community.

And even in my part of the Old North End, where I've lived for the last 15 to 20 years or so, we now see undergraduate students starting to even migrate into our part of the city, which was really a first-time thing in the last couple years. But that's because people are having to go further and further from campus to find slightly affordable housing. And it's not affordable. I mean, we have a babysitter who lived across the street from us. And the amount of rent that she was being asked to pay in an apartment building that I'm pretty sure had some code issues was astounding. So UVM does need to be a better partner for the sake of both the health of the housing vacancy rate in the city for long-term residents, but also just, frankly, for students themselves.

UVM, I hope, would grow into being a better partner because the health of Burlington is intertwined with the health and wellbeing of UVM.
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak

Students need affordable housing, whether it's on campus or off campus. And I think UVM, I hope, would grow into being a better partner because the health of Burlington is intertwined with the health and wellbeing of UVM. And we must be doing more to be able to house students on campus and also not forcing things like triples — so putting three students in a room designed for two. Those are the kinds of things that would make a much more humane and healthy and affordable housing system.

Mikaela Lefrak: Zoning question for you here, representative. Burlington is in the midst of updating its zoning regulations to address the housing shortage. A 10-story apartment building is going up in downtown Burlington right now. It'll provide hundreds of apartments for the city. Do you think all Burlington neighborhoods should have zoning regulations that would allow for buildings of that size?

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: Well, I think this neighborhood code process that's underway right now throughout the city, is one where I think we have a few opportunities we need to think about. We do need to densify housing, we need to be able to think about it consistently throughout the city. And we also have to make sure that we are aligning where we're building more housing with on top of additional important goals in the city, which for me is climate, as well as affordability. It makes no sense to be doing densifying of housing without thinking about access to public transportation lines that run up and down the main corridors within the city, or also a deep commitment to affordability, which includes helping folks bring more housing online in the city who aren't necessarily big developers, I would love to be able to figure out creative ways for smaller developers and even homeowners to create a, you know, what is now a single-zoned parcel into, you know, a duplex, for example, or a triplex so that they're creating their own economic wealth as well.

So I think downtown center city in terms of height is a little bit different than out into the neighborhoods. But for me, there needs to be again, consistency around densifying along our main corridors, so that the future Burlington, 10 years from now, is a place where someone can live in the city and not have to have a car, who can live in a city and know that their city cares about climate because we're trying to really keep development in places that already have developed and can be a little denser and not building on on green space that's vital for stormwater retention, and just livability and climate mitigation. So there's a lot here. It's much bigger than zoning.

Mikaela Lefrak: Well, from the housing shortage to the many, many Burlingtonians who do not have a home, who are experiencing homelessness. Camping outside is technically not legal in Burlington, but many people do it anyway. Some estimates right now suggest around 300 people per night are sleeping outside. This number increased when the state began winding down its motel housing program last year. Should the folks who are sleeping outside in tents right now be allowed to remain outside? And if not, where should they go?

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: Folks who are unhoused in Vermont, in Burlington in particular, really deserve dignity and humane support from the city. Because the reality is there is literally nowhere else to go. We have a historic moment in this time in Vermont where a record number of people are unhoused. And not every unhoused person is the same. We have folks who have families, folks living with disabilities, folks who are seniors, folks who are still working a job that simply cannot find an affordable place to live. And so I have that very realistic and humane understanding of the challenges that folks are facing. Very few people would actively decide to live in a tent in the middle of winter in Vermont.

And last session, I actually led a coalition of Democrats and Progressives to sound the alarm of the abrupt ending of the motel general assistance emergency housing program, the motel program, that was going to just abruptly end last year. And while we were able to put some reasonable compromises on the table, and rehouse or keep certain people housed in the motel program, it wasn't everyone. And that is where we've seen these hundreds of folks be pushed out into the larger communities in Vermont, which includes Burlington, of course.

Folks who are unhoused in Vermont, in Burlington in particular, really deserve dignity and humane support from the city. Because the reality is there is literally nowhere else to go.
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak

So to me, this is about figuring out a humane bridge — I've always thought about the bridge from the time we've had this motel program to when we could have permanent affordable housing for folks available and actually built and online. And for me, this bridge needs to include a humane camping policy that makes sense, and that supports people with the dignity they deserve, as the Vermonters that they are. And I think we can do better than the current policies, which includes, you know, creative thinking around a place to organize folks, a place to give them some dignity with access to things like basic needs, bathrooms and whatnot. So there's more we can do here. And I think again, I would bring a very human approach to this.

Mikaela Lefrak: To be clear, are you saying that you would try to change Burlington’s camping policy to allow people to legally camp outside?

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: Yes, I would want to really explore that. I don't think we've gotten it right. And I think when we have people spread out — and whether we're enforcing the existing ordinance or not, when you have people spread out — it's very hard to build the critical relationships these folks need with social services, social workers, etc. if they're having different people engage with them at different times. I want to make sure that we can build the rapport to make sure people feel supported by their community. And then when they're ready, and there's housing available, can be able to be supported in that transition, either into temporary emergency shelters, which we also need to get online quickly. There's various pieces of this bridge that I was talking about, and so we need to be ready and have those trusted relationships already built and cultivated with these folks, and part of that is providing a more humane camping policy for them.

Mikaela Lefrak: We have a call from Rob, who's in the Old North End in Burlington. Rob, what's your question for Rep. Mulvaney-Stanak?

Rob: I own a property on Clark Street, a block from the Elmwood community, the pod community, and since the pod community opened, the safety of my tenants there has dramatically gone downhill. We find syringes in front of the property frequently, there are trespassers on the property trying car doors, there's open drug use. And I'd like to know whether the candidates think this is a success, this community, and what they plan to do to improve and bring the safety back to that part of the city.

Mikaela Lefrak: For our folks outside of Burlington, the pod community is a low-barrier shelter with a number of individual pods, very small homes, where people can stay usually as individuals, some couples. And they are meant to be temporary housing while the individuals in them search for more permanent housing.

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: I actually just met with the staff at the Elmwood pods, and they are doing such incredibly important work for folks helping people transition into housing, but it's been much slower than anyone anticipated given the realities, again, of the lack of housing for folks to go to. So there's multiple things going on, including in that general area. And it's very close to also the bus station and various other places where a concentration of folks have been locating.

And so to needles brings us to substance use disorder. And so for me, one of the most important things Burlington can put into an option on the table is to open a pilot overdose prevention center. The state’s currently debating this in the Statehouse. We need one of those pilots located in Burlington, most importantly because it will save lives. This is a medical disorder that is ripping through our communities. People need to be able to test drugs and be able to build rapport and support with folks who would be staffing these overdose prevention centers who are medical professionals and whatnot. Secondary impact and benefit, of course, is that where they do exist in New York City, for example, these overdose prevention centers reduce the number of needles in the area. It reduces the number of — the amount of open and public drug use happening. And crime and negative behaviors also go down.

I think we know that there's a number of people taking advantage of Burlington at its sort of critical, vulnerable moment now. But it's a small number of people. And for me, that's where I want partnership with the police and with street outreach team to really focus on the folks causing the most harm in our communities, and start to increase visibility strategically to help deter that negative behavior. And that, to me, is multiple things we have to do at once. And that's why it's again, talk about community safety as a comprehensive system. Not one entity is going to solve this to get to the bottom of all these complexities.

A woman stands in a park
Joan Shannon, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Burlington, is a longtime Burlington city councilor and a real estate agent.

Joan Shannon

Democrat Joan Shannon has been a city councilor for Burlington for about 20 years and is a former president of the council. She represents the South District and is also a real estate agent. She spoke with Mikaela Lefrak on Vermont Edition. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: As part of our Citizens Agenda approach to election coverage, we received a question from a listener named Harold, who asks, “Is the city of Burlington in a time of crisis or a time of transition? And how does the term you select shape your platform?”

Joan Shannon: I think this is a great question. And I've seen some debate online as to whether or not crisis is the appropriate terminology for what we're facing. And I think that when we talk about a crisis, we talk about something that really needs immediate action. And I do think we need immediate action. I also think there's still a lot that's going right in Burlington, and we need to recognize that as well. You know, right at this moment, my office is on Church Street, and Church Street has been looking really good lately. It still has that energy that we love about downtown. And I think we need to be careful to not overstate the situation we're in while acting urgently to change the trajectory on certain elements, which is the open drug use, open drug dealing, and sometimes the associated violence with that.

Mikaela Lefrak: Let's dive into some of those concerns that Burlingtonians are facing, as you mentioned, starting first with public safety. Four years ago, the City Council voted to cut the size of Burlington police force. You voted against reducing the size of the police force. Do you believe there should be more armed police officers in Burlington than there are today? And if so, why?

Joan Shannon: We absolutely need more armed police officers than we have in Burlington today. That is not the only solution that is needed to change our trajectory. But we, you know, the example that was used earlier of somebody who was in a mental health crisis, and the police were called to that crisis, the police were called by the mental health workers who were trying to help this person, but the person was dangerous. And we do need a police response to back up our mental health workers, and our mental health workers have been very clear about that. At the same time, you have to ask the question, how did we get to how did this person get to this situation where they're there on the street, and they're very much a threat to themselves and others? And that's a failure of our state's system that we need to be addressing.

But our police, we are at something around 69 officers, when we were all the way up to 105. Officers we were hearing from people in the Old North End that they wanted more foot patrols, that they wanted more police presence. And now we have far more crime, we have far more violence, and we have far fewer police officers. So we need to recruit officers, and in order to do that, officers need to know that the leadership of the city will have their back when they're doing their jobs according to their directives and training. And that is what I have tried to communicate in this campaign, because it is not enough to say we need more officers on one hand and then come forward with a police oversight mechanism that would be detrimental to hiring any officers at all. And that that oversight mechanism was strongly rejected by the public, but it was strongly supported by the Progressives.

So I think that we need to — we do need to hold police accountable. But at the same time, we can't be overzealous in that. And our primary problem right now is the need to recruit more officers and creating an environment where they can work successfully, creating, really, a bond between the community and the police, because that's a two-way street.

Our primary problem right now is the need to recruit more officers and creating an environment where they can work successfully.
Joan Shannon

Mikaela Lefrak: One follow-up question there. One of the main reasons the council voted to reduce the size of the police force was because of concerns over use of force by police. Do you think the city's leadership and the police department's leadership has done what it needs to do to mitigate that threat of excessive use of force?

Joan Shannon: We've always had a very progressive police department. And we have had things in place to address problems when they arise. But ultimately, the goal is to avoid the problems arising. We have focused way too much on punishing police officers and way too little in assuring that they're able to do their jobs effectively and meet the community expectations. So we have made changes to police oversight, and there's room for making more changes. But that has to be done in partnership with the police. And they have too often really been shut out of the process. And I've been trying to bring them into the process because, truthfully, police officers do not like rogue or bad police officers. They don't want to support that. But they want fair oversight – well, and professional oversight.

A sign that reads "Joan for mayor" is seen in a snowy yard in the foreground. In the background are signs for Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and Carter Neubieser.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Signs for Joan Shannon, in the foreground, and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, in the background, on Feb. 20, 2024. Shannon and Mulvaney-Stanak are the frontrunners in Burlington's mayoral race.

Mikaela Lefrak: Let's turn to the housing shortage. We received a question from a listener named Keith, who asked, “Would you encourage and support the University of Vermont to house more of its undergraduates on campus as a way to address the city's housing shortage?”

Joan Shannon: Assuring that UVM houses more undergraduates on campus, as well as graduate students on campus, is essential. But we need to do it in such a way that doesn't allow them to house more on campus and also house more off campus. So we need to have a better understanding of the university's long-term plans in terms of enrollment. And that is the piece, as we've been negotiating with UVM, we really haven't been able to get that. And with only a five-year MOU and no real window to see what's happening at the end of five years, I have been concerned with the university's plans and the potential impacts of their enrollment increasing and resulting in a greater loss of units off campus.

Mikaela Lefrak: Right now, as a member of the City Council, you represent the South District of Burlington, and last winter, you pushed to reduce the maximum allowable building height of new developments in the South End. If elected mayor representing the entire city, not the South End specifically, could you see your stance on higher buildings in the South End changing as a way to house more people there?

Joan Shannon: Well, there's always a gray area and a limit, right. So yes, there was a proposal for eight-story buildings in the viewshed from Callahan Park. And I suggested that six stories would really — I mean, that is a massive upzoning. So we can all argue should it be six, should it be eight, should it be 10, should it be 20 stories? To me, going from eight stories to six stories, given the other parameters in the zoning district, it didn't reduce the number of units that could be built at all. So it was not a reduction in density. It was only a reduction in height, and I think that that's consistent with kind of who I have been in the 20 years I've served on the council. I try to consider a lot of different interests as I was in that case.

Mikaela Lefrak: Well, let's take a question from a caller. Now we have Annie calling in from Burlington.

Annie: My question for Joan is that I have seen a lot of evidence that incarcerating people for drug use actually has measurable and negative long-term outcomes for not just those individuals, but also for their families and for the whole community. And so I'm wondering why you are advocating for something that data and evidence suggests will not work.

Mikaela Lefrak: Joan, I want to tack on one question to Annie’s here. Do you think people in Burlington should be arrested for using drugs in public?

Joan Shannon: Yes, I do. And I think that we have seen a lot of that. And right around our school, we're seeing people openly using and dealing drugs, I do not think that it's okay to normalize that behavior. But let's remember that incarceration and arrests are entirely different things. And, you know, what I have said is that there should be consequences for openly using and dealing drugs in our public spaces, which is our public living room, in our parks, on Church Street, in our downtown. I believe that at a minimum, we should interrupt your day as a consequence, and that means arresting people. And what happens after that is kind of beyond our control as a city, then it goes into the justice system.

There should be consequences for openly using and dealing drugs in our public spaces... I believe that at a minimum, we should interrupt your day as a consequence, and that means arresting people.
Joan Shannon

And I agree with Annie, that incarceration is certainly not the best answer for people who are suffering with substance use disorder, and there should be an option. And I know many people who have gotten sober by having the option of going into treatment, or going into incarceration, and most people will choose treatment, even though they're not really ready. And that has oftentimes provided the path to get sober. So I believe that some people — I don't think that it's merciful to necessarily let people wait when their addiction is affecting their brain and their judgment. Some people need an intervention in order to get help.

Mikaela Lefrak: Let's turn now to the situation of people experiencing homelessness in Burlington, as we discussed with Rep. Mulvaney-Stanak just before this. Camping outside is not legal in Burlington, but many people are doing it anyway, usually because they don't have anywhere else to go or there's not a place that is affordable. This number of people who are sleeping outside has increased by the estimates, when the state began winding down its motel housing program last year. Do you believe that the people who are sleeping outside today should be allowed to remain outside? And if not, where should they go?

Joan Shannon: Yeah, this is a really challenging question. Communities that are successful in addressing the homelessness in cities have room in their shelters, and the state has not provided the shelters that people need. And I know that there has been an effort to keep the hotel program open, but the hotel program is a completely inefficient program. That's unaffordable. That's why it's this constant threat of shutting down the hotel program, and why is the state not providing the shelter, the basic shelter for people that they need so that they're not sleeping outside? I mean, if we really want to address people camping, we do have to provide that option.

At the same time, Burlington cannot be the only option where people come and camp here because we let you and other communities don't. We cannot house everyone who's unhoused, or we can't have everyone camping here who's becoming homeless throughout Chittenden County and beyond. So I think that this is our challenge is both to create boundaries, and we do have a camping policy, I agree with that policy, it's very clear that you cannot camp in our public parks.

Mikaela Lefrak: And you don't think it should change.

Joan Shannon: I do not think you should be allowed to camp in our public parks. And it's a little bit more gray on other public lands. And there is more process around other public lands to protect people. Because ultimately, it is really a problem when people have no place to go. And I think the state of Vermont needs to provide the social safety net for people so that there is a place for them to go.

Mikaela Lefrak: So you think that should be something that is state-funded?

Joan Shannon: It always has been state-funded. There isn't really another option. Even to the extent that we have provided shelter here in Burlington, it's been with state money and ARPA money. And we've done it in such a way that, you know, we cannot keep the pods open, because the land is being developed, we cannot keep our other shelter at the VFW open because the land is being developed. So we need, you know, when we're investing in a shelter, we should be investing in a shelter that we can sustain. And we need to, you know, continue to work on our housing inventory, so that ultimately people can move from shelter into permanent supportive housing.

When we're investing in a shelter, we should be investing in a shelter that we can sustain.
Joan Shannon

Mikaela Lefrak: Speaking of funding for these programs, on the March ballot, Burlington voters are going to be able to vote on a three-cent public safety tax to help the city meet a $9 million budget gap. You've been a city councilor for 20 years now. And that's why I ask you this question from a listener named Seth, who wrote in and asked us, “Could you speak to how we got into this budget situation, and how we can get out of it?”

Joan Shannon: Well, we've had a 17% increase in CPI since our last tax increase, and we're asking for a 4% tax increase here. I think that if we have increased the cost of public safety, as well as the need for public safety, we have more drug overdoses that our fire department needs to respond to and street outreach needs to respond to, and we have more violent crimes as well. So — and hiring a police officer costs far more than that than it did in 2020 at the point that we defunded the police.

So I know that our community wants public safety. And if they want public safety, they do need to support public safety with this tax. And I also know how stretched we all are, you know, close to 80% — I'm sorry, close to 70% of our tax bill is from the schools and from the state of Vermont, Vermont through the school funding system. And we have a huge problem there where Burlington was forced to build a high school when no other community was, you know, we need a high school. So this is, it is, it's really challenging, but I know that public safety is a basic need and what almost everybody is telling me that they want and the taxes required to just preserve the public safety that we have.

Broadcast at noon Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

A person wearing glasses stands in front of a brick wall and smiles
Liam Elder-Connors
Vermont Public
Burlington independent mayoral candidate Will Emmons.

Will Emmons


Independent candidate for mayor Will Emmons is a used car salesperson and former president of the union representing Vermont postal workers. He spoke with Vermont Public's Liam Elder-Connors on Feb. 21.

Liam Elder-Connors: I want to start off with public safety because that's been a focus for a lot of the mayoral candidates. You've been vocal, I know, about wanting to hire more police officers, capping the department at 112. So I know the City Council voted in 2021 to raise that cap to 87 officers, which was in line with recommendations from a study of the department. How did you determine that the city needs 112 officers?

Will Emmons: Well, the city looks like a war zone right now. And, you know, crime is up, the murder rate’s up, the dropout rate’s up. And, you know, all those things kind of relate back to public safety. You know, people need to feel safe. Students walking to school need to feel safe. You know, two-and-a-half officers per 1,000 citizens is a rate that — is a number that, you know, you got officers on several shifts on a 24-hour clock, that are, you know, patrolling the streets, in order to make sure that it's safe for citizens to live.

Liam Elder-Connors: How would you be able to afford more police? I know, you've also talked about wanting to cut costs, and how do those two things work out? Where would you cut in order to bring more officers on board?

Will Emmons: To be clear, I said that it will always be my goal to lower taxes. You know, in order to get patronism and tax base back to the city, you have to have, provide safety. And so that's inevitably going to lower taxes in the long run. So, you know, there's decisions that have to be made. And city planning is something that has to be taken seriously. Public safety has to be part of that.

Liam Elder-Connors: Let's shift over to housing, which is another big issue in the city. Rental vacancy rates have been at 1% or lower. Home prices are skyrocketing. On your website, you say that homeowners, historical preservation, and renters in Victorian and colonial homes are the heart of the city.

Will Emmons: Correct.

Liam Elder-Connors: That seems to indicate, though, that you're not supportive of dense residential development in Burlington, if we're gonna get out of the housing crisis, though, doesn't the city need to embrace larger scale projects somewhere in the city?

Will Emmons: I don't use the word housing crisis. I’m not —

Liam Elder-Connors: How are we not in a housing crisis?

Will Emmons: I'm not attaching the word crisis to that. We have numerous high-density residential buildings up in this city. And also, not to mention, with the support of Chittenden County, we have a lot of high-density residential units going up everywhere. So there's plenty of places for people to live, and we need to focus in Burlington on quality of life. Inevitably, there's always going to be new construction. That's a fact. However, we need to focus on public safety, infrastructure, the — education and, you know, quality of life.

There's plenty of places for people to live, and we need to focus in Burlington on quality of life.
Will Emmons

Liam Elder-Connor: So you don't think Burlington needs more housing?

Will Emmons: I think that we have grown at a rate where our infrastructure has not caught up to our development and infrastructure has to be able to support the development. So you can't, I mean, it's like hiring an employee without a job for him. You have to have support of infrastructure — and that's sewer systems, that's water piping, that's electricity, that's power lines, that's fiber optics. Everything has to be caught up to, you know, the ability to support what you plan to do in the future. And that's where we're lacking, big time.

Liam Elder-Connor: Well, I think connected to some of the quality-of-life issues you've been talking about: homelessness — the rate has increased. There's a lot more people living outside right now. You said you wanted to defund all vagrant housing initiatives. How would getting rid of shelter capacity help the city's most vulnerable residents?

Will Emmons: Well, I can name on two hands how many of these homeless people are from Burlington, and if you look on my website, which is, you will find an interview I just did last night with a homeless person. And you know, the movie Thank You for Smoking is a great example of an issue that's being exploited. You see, we are inviting people from across the country to be homeless on the streets of Burlington, with the advertisement that we will support them with our tax dollars and that is just not a municipality’s responsibility.

Liam Elder-Connors: But doesn't the city have a responsibility to take care of its residents, and that includes people who are living unsheltered in the city?

Will Emmons: Right, again, I can name on two hands how many people are actually from here that are living homeless on the streets.

Liam Elder-Connors: Why shouldn't the city take care of those people? You're talking about getting rid of all of the city-sponsored housing initiatives.

Will Emmons: The city of Burlington’s taxpayers is not responsible for soliciting a nationwide homeless population to the city of Burlington. If you see — and I'm the only person probably in this race that's actually gone down and interviewed people from that community, or set foot on a homeless encampment — and you don't really hear much talk about this. When you hear about the Sears Lane homeless encampment. You don't hear much talk about the Manhattan Drive homeless encampment or the Riverside Avenue homeless encampments. So the Shelburne Road homeless encampments, you know, because what we're doing is a bunch of P.R. stunts.

Liam Elder-Connors: Would you support opening an overdose prevention center, which is also known as a safe injection site, in Burlington?

Will Emmons: No. I am the only candidate in this race that is against public injection sites. Again, soliciting more people from across the country to this town.

Liam Elder-Connors: Will, you got 27 votes in the last mayoral election. You've not held an elected position in city government before. Why should Burlingtonians trust that you have the experience to run the city?

Will Emmons: Yeah. And I saw this question coming. That's perfectly fine. This time around, I got a website. I got flyers. I built and designed this stuff. I truly care about the city of Burlington. I'm going house to house — the whole city. You know, a lot of people are very frustrated. I mean, the concerns on Staniford Avenue are different than the concerns on Woodbury are different than the concerns in the South End are different than the concerns in Northgate housing are different than the concerns of Franklin Square. And, you know, as I'm getting house to house — and I will complete the whole city by the end of this election. You know, what's different from the last time around? It's, the last time around. I didn't have a website. I didn't have flyers. I didn't have anything but campaign signs and really good debates.

Chris Haessly
Chris Haessly
Chris Haessly is an independent candidate for mayor of Burlington.

Chris Haessly


Independent candidate for mayor Chris Haessly is a data analyst and a commissioner for Church Street Marketplace. He spoke with Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki on Feb. 22.

Jenn Jarecki: Public safety has been a focus for mayoral candidates in this election cycle. But you've been outspoken about how this is not the number-one issue plaguing Burlington. What is?

Chris Haessly: I think the affordability issue has been very clearly something that I've been hearing about from a lot of folks. It's just really difficult to live in Burlington. Housing prices are out of control, not only for folks that are renting, but for people who want to stay in Burlington and would like to purchase a home, there's just simply not enough affordable starter homes available. And then rents to just keep getting up, you know, increasing and increasing.

Jenn Jarecki: I want to return to public safety for a moment. Do you believe that there should be more or fewer armed police officers in Burlington than there are today? And why?

Chris Haessly: I don't think it's really a question about how many armed officers we have. I think it's more a question about finding the right tool for the job. And when you look at some of the issues we're facing with public safety, you've got to kind of dig a little deeper and look at root causes. And for a number of folks, particularly the types of issues that we see in the downtown core where I live, a lot of the folks that are engaging in these types of behaviors have an underlying medical condition, typically a mental health condition or substance use disorder that's gone unaddressed.

So, I think that where the state is really failing, particularly in the Legislature, is the fact that we've got these issues, and we're just healing the symptoms and not affecting the cause. So, I think longer term, if we were to focus on some of these root cause issues, and provide people with the kinds of treatment they need, and deal with some of these access barriers head-on, perhaps maybe could have a conversation about establishing a new state hospital for folks with mental health conditions and substance use disorders. I think that would go a long way towards bringing the public safety issue, you know, back to where we'd like to see it.

But at the end of the day, to say, well, we're going to put more police officers on the street, I don't know that that's really a realistic response to this. Because typically, when you hire a new officer, they have to go through training, and it can be as much as nine to 12 months before, you know someone's ready to go out on patrol on their own. So, to just say, well, we're gonna put more officers on it. I don't think that's a very realistic solution.

Jenn Jarecki: In a recent interview, on The Morning Drive, you discuss the motel housing program, saying essentially, the program is like gauze on a gunshot wound, I think were your words. What are your issues with the motel housing program?

Chris Haessly: It's not cost-effective and it's not leading to good outcomes. And again, we have people that are struggling with mental health conditions and substance use disorder that are being housed, but we're not providing any kind of treatment for the very thing that caused them to lose their housing in the first place. So, it seems to me that we need to be treating the underlying condition.

Jenn Jarecki: So, as mayor, how would you specifically address Burlington's homelessness and housing insecurity issues?

Chris Haessly: I would work with the Legislature. I think it's a state and regional issue that requires a state and regional response. And I resent the fact that a lot of these issues are now being dumped on to the municipalities such as Burlington and that we're being expected to pick up the slack for what is arguably a statewide issue. And I think that, to the extent that the motel program — I mean, we've heard from the governor, we've heard from the Department of Children and Families, we've heard from the Agency of Health and Human Services — that it's just simply not sustainable.

Now, where the motel program might make sense, is for folks that are struggling with like situational houselessness. For example, someone who lost a job, their spouse passed away unexpectedly, they've gone through bankruptcy for, you know, medical debt, those folks are generally well-adjusted and, you know, will be able to get back on their feet within, you know, a few months. But for folks that are chronically unhoused because they have an underlying medical condition, the substance use disorder, or the mental health condition, these folks need a different level. And it's, you talked about housing first, it's more from my perspective, it's housing with or housing plus. We need to be providing the services along with the housing. And if we're not going to do that, and not treat the underlying cause, we're not going to get the results that we're expecting, which is to move people into permanent housing.

I think it's a state and regional issue that requires a state and regional response. And I resent the fact that a lot of these issues are now being dumped on to the municipalities such as Burlington and that we're being expected to pick up the slack for what is arguably a statewide issue.
Chris Haessly

Jenn Jarecki: I'd like to turn now to opioid use disorder, which is, of course, impacting families across our state, Queen City residents included. Do you support opening a safe injection site and Burlington as a way to help mitigate the opioid crisis?

Chris Haessly: I think that's a conversation worth having. And I think that folks that are struggling, you know, we need to focus on keeping people alive and it makes sense. But what I have concerns about there is you've heard a lot of talk about, well, you know, we'll have a safe injection site, it'll have wraparound services, you know, we'll introduce people to the services and get them into a facility. But the reality is we simply don't have enough beds. So, we bring them into the opioid overdose prevention center. Where are we going to send them? We don't have the beds.

And then factor in on top of that, Vermont Medicare only pays for like two weeks worth of inpatient treatment, where some of the surrounding states I believe, pay for four weeks of treatment. What I'm hearing from the folks in the trenches that do this kind of work is that a lot of our beds here in Vermont, the limited number that we have, are actually being filled from people from out of state. So again, it goes back to we need to increase our bed capacity, we should not be relying on the private sector to do that, and it's time for the state Legislature to step it up, take some of the opioid settlement funds and put it towards expanding the capacity.

Jenn Jarecki: Chris, you didn't gain much traction last time you ran for elected office, which was a City Council position in 2021. And we also had a tough time learning about you in a place where a lot of people search for information, which is the internet. Why should Burlington voters trust that you have the experience and ideas to effectively lead the city?

Chris Haessly: Well, I think I have a track record to run on. But I think I bring a perspective that we're not typically hearing. Right now, we have two major-party candidates that are both homeowners, and yet 70% of the city or upwards of that are renters. And as a longtime renter, that was a perspective that wasn't being heard. And I thought it was important to come to the table and bring that, but more importantly, there were a number of very serious issues that are just not getting any airplay or any traction this time around. And we've heard a lot about public safety, we've heard about housing, nobody's really talking about the city's fiscal condition and the issues going on there. Nobody's talking about the fact that we have a lot of aging infrastructure, and there doesn't seem to be any plan to address that. And certainly, nobody's talking about a plan for community and economic development.

And I'm kind of of the opinion that you know, after what happened with the Memorial Auditorium, we need to have a new civic center, not only as a community space but as a reinvestment in Burlington. And I think that that would be an important, you know, economic development tool. And, you know, I floated the idea that, well, if we're gonna build a civic center, maybe we should look at bringing in a minor league hockey team, as the anchor tenant as a way to bring people into the downtown in the winter months when there's not a lot going on, but we need to start talking about how we're gonna grow our economy and how we're gonna increase sales tax revenue so that we no longer have to rely on the property tax.

Have questions, comments, or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022 and now serves as the Managing Editor and Senior Producer. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.