Out From Under B.T. Lawsuit, Burlington Mayor Weinberger Hopes For Second Term
Democrat Miro Weinberger is wrapping up his first term as Burlington's mayor, and he wants another go at it. He's seeking re-election in March on Town Meeting Day. But he does face a challenge from Progressive Steve Goodkind, who is also the former head of the city's Department of Public Works.
"Three years ago, the city had really lost its way. It was facing real financial troubles. There was a real problem with trust in city hall, things were really in disarray," Weinberger said. "From the day we got into office we started to turn that around, and here we are three years later, and all of our credit ratings at the airport, at BED [Burlington Electric Department] are stabilized or have actually been upgraded. We have resolved or definitively ended the lawsuit with CitiBank, both protecting the taxpayers from any further harm and saving a public utility which was under assault and we have made steady progress with our financial systems."
Weinberger said there's still a lot of work to be done. He'd like to see the city keep moving forward and not to return to the same leadership, policies and attitude of three years ago.
The city has secured a release from CitiBank which says there is no more threat to the taxpayers from the lawsuit, Weinberger said. "But also, importantly, and I think this is not a not always understood element of the settlement, but we have saved Burlington Telecom. The bank was saying rip up the fiber from the ground, or if you're not going to do that at least take it, Burlington Telecom, away from the city, who has managed it irresponsibly, put it in receivership. We have earned through this settlement a second chance with Burlington Telecom." Weinberger said the settlement gives the city three or four years to find a long-term financial partner.
"At the end of that period, it is quite likely that the city will no longer be the majority owner, the way that we essentially are now. If policy makers in the future want the city to continue to have some kind of ownership interest in that future entity, that is likely to be available. We think any partner coming in will probably want the city involved and that kind of partnership will be good for business. There is some possibility of coming up with some kind of creative ownership, community ownership like this co-op that's been talked out," Weinberger explained. "What the settlement does, is it gives us time to explore that. It removes the overhang of litigation that did plague BT for many years and has given us time and space to see if we can come up with a creative solution that meets as many of the original goals as possible."
Weinberger rejected claims made by challenger Steve Goodkind that the city hasn't been transparent about the settlement. "We have been as public and transparent about what we are doing with Burlington Telecom as possible in a situation where you had a major federal litigation hanging over the city and where you had business terms that needed to be negotiated," Weinberger said, adding that no decisions were made without public disclosure and he noted that the City Council unanimously approved the settlement.
In regards to the $17 million Weinberger said, "I think we all know that once money has been spent irresponsibly, it is difficult to get it back." And he explained that the settlement says if there are any net sales proceeds when a new financial partner is brought in, Burlington gets a share of them, but he acknowledged it's unlikely to be the whole $17 million.
Steve Goodkind has said Weinberger is too focused on development. One specific proposal that has many people nervous about is Burlington College's plan to sell off land to a private developer.
Weinberger said the city is watching the potential sale closely. "My position on this is that this is a large and important piece of land in Burlington. There is an opportunity to achieve many municipal goals on this site. There's a possibility of creating a much needed connection between the Old North End and the bike path. There's opportunity to conserve some important natural areas, and there's also an opportunity to do something about our affordability crisis as a city and create in this compactly, densely settled part of the city."
He said the city is engaged with conservation groups to make that vision happen and they are in conversations with the likely future owner of that land. "I think it's important for people to understand there's real uncertainty as to who is going to control the land going forward. It is not something controlled by the city," Weinberger said. "We are trying to be patient and that I think there's a very sensitive situation going on with an important institution in Burlington College and they are trying to resolve some very difficult financial challenges and we need to give them some space to do that, but certainly the city will use all of the tools at its disposal to make sure that a good outcome comes from the situation and that something wonderful that meets many of these needs: recreation, conservation and housing needs are met."
Tuesday on Morning Edition we spoke with progressive mayoral candidate Steve Goodkind. You can find that interview here.