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How Many Burlington City Councilors Does it Take to ... ? 

Published August 9, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.

The agenda for tonight's Burlington City Council meeting raises lots of interesting questions, not the least of which is: "How many city councilors does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

Please post your responses below.

OK, the real question being posed tonight — though couched in legalese — could have a big impact on how the council operates in the coming months.

The real question being debated tonight is: How many city councilors does it take to constitute both a quorum and a majority? Hint: It may not be the same number.

When Marrisa Caldwell suddenly resigned from the city council, the council's membership was pared to 13 until a replacement is elected in November.

As I noted in "Fair Game" last week, state law seems pretty clear that the council still needs eight councilors in order to constitute a quorum (a quorum is the amount of councilors needed to hold an official meeting).

Both City Attorney Ken Schatz, and Democratic caucus attorney Dan Richardson agree it takes eight councilors to constitute a quorum given that it's a 14-member panel — even when it's missing a councilor. That's good news for the seven-member Democratic caucus, which can still meet without fear of having to open up its caucus to the public or warn it to voters. Not sure any of the Democrats on the council have a living room the size of Contois Auditorium.

However, the two attorneys disagree on whether the council needs eight councilors to agree on any particular resolution in order for it to pass.

According to a memo from Schatz sent to councilors last week, the council has made exceptions to needing a true majority (eight members) to approve certain actions. "[T]he city council has enacted several rules as exceptions to the practice of a voting majority being a majority of the members present, requiring approval of certain actions by a 'majority of the entire membership of the city council,'" Schatz wrote in a memo emailed to councilors.

Given the disagreement with Richardson, Schatz told councilors he was preparing a formal opinion on the issue. The councilor who requested the opinion was Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5).

Richardson believes prevailing case law suggests that state law lays claim that, like a quorum, the majority is based on the full panel's membership, not just who shows up. The city charter provision notwitstanding, Richardson does not believe a court would side with the city if it was ever challenged in court. The reason? The city charter does not give the council the authority to undermine some parts of state law by simply adopting a rule or bylaw, Richardson notes.

With three practicing attorneys on the council — Democrats Ed Adrian (Ward 1), Mary Kehoe (Ward 6) and Bram Kranichfeld (Ward 2) — tonight's debate should be interesting to say the least.

Council President Bill Keogh told Seven Days the council will likely go with seven as the majority number for now, pending further research by Schatz. However, commission appointments will still likely need eight votes to be approved, and he believes nine is needed to constitute a two-thirds majority.

At stake is whether the council only needs a majority of those present (seven if all 13 members attend a meeting) rather than the eight needed previously.

With seven Democrats on the council, needing only seven votes to approve key actions could give the Democrats greater sway over legislation in the coming months — not needing to add an independent or Republican vote in order to pass laws.

Though, as I noted last week, it'll take more than creating blue ribbon commissions and shadow boxing with Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss for the Dems to earn an eight-member majority from Burlington voters.

In other business, the city council will be asked to spend $15,000 to study how much it'll cost to upgrade Centennial Field in order to keep Major League Baseball and the New York Penn League from yanking the minor league franchise from Vermont. The University of Vermont will match that money, according to Brian Pine, the city's Community and Economic Development Office's assistant director for housing and ... baseball.

Pine picked up the additional title by leading up a multi-pronged effort to raise money to improve the park and keep the team in Burlington.

The study would not be able to take place until after the last regular season game (which is August 27) because it's "invasive." The study should only take three to four weeks, Pine said.

"This will not be a fast process, but it will send a clear message to NYPL and MLB that this community values this team and will pull out all the stops to keep them in town," said Pine in an email to Seven Days. "Once we have the preliminary engineering report, we will set the next committee meeting."

A group of stakeholders met two weeks ago, at the behest of the city council, though Pine noted that the administration had been meeting with the Lake Monsters' owners and other interested parties for months trying to determine how to fund improvements at the park and keep the team town.

The study is estimated to cost up to $50,000, and the University of Vermont, the Vermont Lake Monsters and a private donor have agreed to contribute a total of $35,000 to cover the cost of the study; the mayor is asking the city to pony up the remaining $15,000.

As Seven Days noted in this week's issue, the council will be asked to approve Champlain College's plans to buy, or lease, property on Lakeside Avenue.  The building will house the college's information technology center for the college and the school's Emergent Media Center. The 37,500-square-foot building is currently under construction.

The council will also need to decide tonight whether it will allow Burlington Electric Department to sign onto the proposed power deal with Hydro Quebec. This is Burlington's last chance to jump on the HQ bandwagon before the deal goes to the Vermont Public Service Board for approval. If the council does give the OK, then city voters would get a chance to weigh in — after the PSB renders a decision.

In the 1990s, voters originally agreed to join the Hydro Quebec deal but opponents successfully argued that information supplied by the city to voters in the voting booths violated state electioneering laws. So, the original vote giving a thumbs up to the HQ deal was invalidated and a re-vote occurred. Opponents prevailed on the second attempt.

The Burlington Electric Commission voted 4-1 in favor of signing onto the deal. The lone dissenter was the commission's chairman, Daniel Shearer.

He said he voted no for several reasons.

"I believe people should understand the full impacts of the energy they use and it's more difficult to understand HQ's generation impact on the environment and local people when the energy is generated hundreds of miles away, in a place where Vermonters are unlikely to visit," said Shearer.

He did say when voters get a chance to weigh in on the deal, the city may be forced to provide greater detail about the contract than will be revealed publicly during the PSB process. That could prove problematic, but Shearer said he's hopeful that enough information can be shared without compromising the contract.

Finally, the council will consider whether to approve a downtown educational effort to keep sidewalks clear from the streets feeding into the Church Street Marketplace. The education effort stems from an ordinance proposal that would have banned people from sitting or lying down within six feet of a building. The proposal caused an uproar, and even the council's ordinance committee rejected the idea.

The proposal would have the Department of Public Works post signs educating people that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires the city maintain a five foot right-of-way on sidewalks. The city's Public Works Commission will be asked to come up with how to best educate the public and report back to the council by September 1.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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