Column | The Buck Stops ... Somewhere | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Buck Stops ... Somewhere 

Local Matters

Bernie Sanders

Published June 22, 2011 at 10:41 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

There are plenty of people who might run for mayor of Vermont’s largest city. The question is: What will the successful candidate win?

The mayor of Burlington post-2012 election will lord over a city that has been rendered dysfunctional as a result of financial uncertainty — and political ineptitude at all levels. (For a list of mayoral hopefuls, see Andy Bromage’s article.)

Over the past two and a half years, Mayor Bob Kiss has squandered the good will of the electorate the way Burlington Telecom has squandered money.

Kiss is bullheaded, but so is the Democratic-led city council. Its political mission: Get Bob.

Instead of dealing directly with the city’s myriad financial problems, the council has appointed consultants, blue-ribbon committees and special subcommittees to study Burlington Telecom and the redevelopment of the Moran Plant, which led to the hiring of more consultants and more studies and more subcommittees and … well, you get the picture.

It’s no wonder taxpayers have lost faith in city hall and become numb to Burlington politics.

Therein may lie the secret to Kiss’ reelection strategy: Things look so bad for Burlington that no serious, credible candidate steps up to challenge him; disenchanted voters sit out the election.

The mayor’s opponents often come off as disconnected and aloof as Kiss himself.

Remember when the Burlington Parks and Recreation Commission reinstated a manager who had been caught reading employee emails and then lied about it — in an effort to discredit Kiss and Leopold before the 2009 election?

Now the Airport Commission is blaming Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold for screwing up the airport’s parking-garage finances. Meanwhile, they’re praising the city’s assistant CAO for coming up with a plan to fix the problem. You know, the guy who takes orders from Leopold.

This kind of buck passing makes taxpayers even more uneasy as they stare down the city’s significant tab: Burlington Telecom is $50.5 million in debt; the city pension fund is at least $48 million short; and now the airport owes at least $7 million on an overbuilt parking garage.

That’s real money. The first pol who is courageous enough to offer a real solution — rather than one that settles past political scores — could be the city’s next mayor.

For now, Burlingtonians are stuck with short-term political thinking that could potentially do long-term damage to the city’s vitality, and to the state’s economy.

Despite its public-sector woes, Burlington’s private sector continues to thrive. In fact, Burlington’s commercial vitality and housing market have helped buoy Vermont’s economy during the recession. How long can that hold as bad news and political infighting paralyze the city?

Any mayoral hopeful will face a daunting task. In the end, pols with loftier, perhaps statewide, ambitions may conclude the job looks more like a pirate’s plank than a ladder.

The Peace Dividend

Mayor Bob Kiss may be on the losing end of many battles in Burlington, but he scored a victory this week in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors made national news Monday when the group approved a “swords into ploughshares” resolution that Kiss cosponsored. It calls on President Barack Obama and Congress to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mayors want the $126 billion — the annual expenditure on the two wars — to be deployed domestically.

Monday’s vote marked the first time since the Vietnam War that the U.S. mayors have taken a stand on U.S. foreign policy. The resolution noted, “The severity of the ongoing economic crisis has created budget shortfalls at all levels of government and requires us to reexamine our national spending priorities.”

This week, President Obama is expected to announce a withdrawal plan for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Great timing.

This Means War!

Vermont’s congressional delegation has various opinions about whether President Barack Obama broke the law when he decided to allow U.S. military operations in Libya.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) believe Obama is in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires a president to seek Congressional approval for U.S. military intervention that extends beyond 90 days. The deadline passed last weekend.

Prior to the deadline, Obama issued a 32-page report to Congress claiming that his administration didn’t need congressional approval for the military actions in Libya. The president’s logic? The United States is only playing a support role in the NATO-led effort to aid rebels in that country who hope to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. No ground troops are involved.

“The War Powers Act gives some latitude to the president,” Welch told Vermont Public Radio’s Bob Kinzel last week before Obama delivered his report. “[That] latitude has been granted or he’s taken it, but now it’s time for him to come to Congress, in my view, and comply with the Constitution.”

Sanders said the War Powers Act is an important law that “has been violated many times in recent years. My view is that the president needs authority from Congress at the end of 90 days of a military engagement, and that the Congress must provide or deny him permission to continue.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants more than a 32-page report before he’s ready to take sides.

“Consistency is in short supply on both sides of the war-powers argument about Libya,” said David Carle, Leahy’s spokesman, who noted many presidents have tried to circumvent the law. “Senator Leahy believes the law has an important function and that it clearly has implications for this situation. In policy terms and in practice, he believes the White House owes a fuller accounting about U.S. involvement and intentions in the Libyan conflict.”

I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

Bully for Bundlers

A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) found nearly 200 of the top fundraisers — aka “bundlers” — from Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign have received special advisory appointments, plum posts and federal contracts.

Not named in the article, but included among the 200, were Bill and Jane Stetson of Norwich, Vt., according to a spokesman for CPI. Jane Stetson raised more than $200,000 for Obama, which earned her top bundler billing in Vermont.

She is now the finance chairwoman for the Democratic National Committee; Bill Stetson sits on an advisory commission to the Kennedy Center for the Arts.

Obama had only three bundlers in Vermont who raised $50,000 or more, according to Public Citizen’s White House for Sale website, which CPI cites as a source: Jane Stetson; Charlie Kireker, who bundled $100,000 or more; and Carolyn Dwyer, who is in the “$50,000 or more” category.

Neither Dwyer nor Kireker got a plum post as a result, but both have signed up as cochairs of Obama’s reelection committee in Vermont. They’re lining up major donors for next week’s fundraising stop by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Dwyer is a longtime campaign manager and fundraiser for Sen. Patrick Leahy. Kireker is a founder of FreshTracks Capital, a venture capital firm. He is also the former chairman of Air America Media, which ran the progressive radio channel Air America.

Kireker was also one of Obama’s “mega donors,” according to White House for Sale. He donated $28,500.

Obama had six other “mega donors” in Vermont: George Burrill and Valerie Graham, two “retired” folks living in Charlotte; Peter Novello, a Wall Street investment adviser from West Windsor; Bob Stiller, founder and current chairman of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters; and Jake and Donna Carpenter of Burton Snowboards. Each coughed up $28,500 for some hope and change.

After the Flood

The web press that prints the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald was seriously damaged on May 27, when torrential rains caused the nearby North Branch River to flood the plant. It’s unclear if the press will ever be fixed or replaced.

The Times Argus offices sustained an estimated $2 million in damage. That doesn’t include the costs of replacing its printing press, valued at roughly $1.7 million, said R. John Mitchell, publisher of both dailies. In addition to those newspapers, the printing press used to print two weeklies and four monthly business journals owned by the Mitchell family.

Over the past 20 years, the building has survived three “100-year” floods. Each time, only about two inches of water seeped into the building, Mitchell noted.

“We were absolutely flabbergasted that there was three feet of water in the building,” said Mitchell, who is trying to determine if the paper’s insurer will cover the cost of damages — and if not, just how to pay to get it fixed.

The papers consolidated their printing operations in Barre about five years ago to save money. They’ve since invested $250,000 in cloud computing technology, which makes it possible for the paper to be printed offsite.

Mitchell employs about 120 full- and part-time workers. About 25 have been laid off since the flood, largely because of the disabled printer. “They are all subject to recall,” said Mitchell.

No one knows how long they’re likely to be waiting, though.

For now, the Times Argus is being printed on an emergency basis at the Burlington Free Press, while the Herald is being printed at a paper in upstate New York.

Bids have been issued in search of a more long-term, yet potentially interim, printing solution. “We’re not sure how long it’ll be until we print again — or if we’ll be able to print again,” said Mitchell.

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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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