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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Greg Guma for Mayor: Restore NPA Funding

At the Ward 4 / 7 Neighborhood Planning Assembly mayoral forum last night, I announced my support for a resolution passed by the NPA Steering Committee requesting $5,000 a year per NPA to make small grants to community projects.

After the NPA resolution was passed at the group’s quarterly meeting on December 3, 2014, ALL candidates for mayor were asked by the Steering Committee to take a position of the issue. However, when the topic was raised last night, Mayor Weinberger and Steve Goodkind said nothing.
In 1976, as Burlington Youth Coordinator, I worked with the city’s Youth Council and the City Council to look for ways to coordinate programs and services. At that time the Council adopted a resolution that endorsed the concept of neighborhood assemblies. However, it took more than five years and a different mayor to achieve that.

Watch the Debate
At the start each NPA was allocated at least $15,000 to disburse. A large number of initiates were funded, from tree grates to bus shelters and play grounds. But funding gradually declined over the years, and ended completely in 2011. Today each NPA receives just $400, barely enough to cover meeting expenses.
As the NPA Steering Committee noted in its resolution, “de-funding of the NPAs has removed a vital incentive for citizen attendance and participation. When the NPA was a space for the discussion and possible funding of neighborhood improvements, there was a sense that one’s participation could meaningfully shape the future of the neighborhood.”
I agree with the group’s conclusion that small, high-impact grants via NPAs will both improve neighborhoods and revitalize these vital institutions. The amount of funding requested is modest and reasonable, but the impacts would be enormous.
The NPA request concludes by urging each candidate to consider the proposal and respond. Yet the mayor did not comment, and Goodkind focused instead on more administrative consolidation as his priority. I strongly disagree, and noted last night that the Progressive administrations he served centralized too much power in the executive branch, rather that decentralizing power and broadening participation.
Restored funding for NPAs is a small step in the right direction.
During the forum, I also supported two local ballot items – an advisory vote on non-citizen voting and participation on boards and other city bodies – called for raising the local minimum wage, and said zoning for the South End’s industrial/cultural enterprise zone that keeps it affordable for artists and other innovators should not be changed, as is currently being considered.
I again called on the city to become more involved in the future of 33 acres in the North End owned by Burlington College. This is also an issue for the Ward 4 / 7 NPA. At a recent meeting, the NPA asked for more accountability for funds expended to conserve land and open space, and the use of such funds to leverage conservation of the BC/Diocese fields for public use, as well as the other remaining open space, forest, waterfront shoreline, and historical areas on the site.
Mayor Weinberger and Mr. Goodkind also chose to say nothing about that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Preservation & Change: Finding the Balance

Campaign Announcement: Greg Guma, January 27, 2015
Two months ago, I began to look seriously at the race for mayor – the only public official elected citywide in Burlington -- attending meetings, meeting with community leaders, seeking counsel from friends. Some urged me on, but others wondered why anyone would consider such a thing, or suggested approaching the Progressive Party.


Once upon a time in Burlington, I was part of the movement that put progressives in power here. I ran twice myself for the City Council, as a Progressive and Democrat. But that was decades ago, and things have changed. In any case, Progressive Party leaders united behind Steve Goodkind, so the question became whether to run anyway. I waited, and listened, for about a month – and basically heard nothing.

What I mean is, nothing of consequence about the fast-tracking of various projects developing across the city – from the threat of another commercial center replacing a North End mobile home neighborhood to the looming, intensive development of 33 acres of irreplaceable open space owned by the financially-strapped Burlington College…
Nothing too about troubling, proposed zoning changes and gentrification plans in the South End that will drive out the innovators and artists who make the city special, and certainly nothing about low-key planning for another major hotel, this one right at the water’s edge. That project, hidden under the label “adaptive reuse and infill,” is reluctantly acknowledged on page 108 of a 113-page pitch known as PlanBTV.
Supporters urged me to reconsider, and more than that, they took to the streets and public events to see how others felt and collected enough signatures to place my name on the ballot as an Independent Candidate. In less than two weeks they did it. I am humbled by the support and ready now to give it my all.


During this campaign, I hope to share insights and lessons learned from over 40 years as an organizer, manager, and devoted lover of this place, the Queen City of Vermont. And also what I’m hearing these days – about outrageous housing costs and unmet neighborhood needs, preserving open space and raising local wages, resisting privatization and increasing participation and real accountability.
Why It Matters
One way or the other, this election will be a turning point. In the near future, decisions will be made that change Burlington for generations. I know Mayor Weinberger and appreciate his energy and sincerity. I also know Steve Goodkind and appreciate his service to the city as DPW chief under three progressive mayors. However, at this moment, with a developer in charge, the city is on an express train to gentrification and increased corporate penetration. But that doesn’t mean returning to the past or forgetting the lessons.
There is an alternative: to challenge complacency and question the rush to redevelop, to find sustainable solutions based on community values and balanced priorities, and to open up local debate on the big decisions ahead.
As I’ve been saying, we can’t just build our way out of problems. We need solutions that balance efficiency and growth with democracy and fairness, and create positive outcomes for all of us.
And to find them we need to ask more questions, get more answers and more people involved, to reclaim the right to make informed choices – the essence of democracy. But that means more openness, access, and accountability than we have been seeing.
I’ll also speak plainly about poverty, racism and war. These are also local issues. While I’m as proud as any Burlingtonian that our home is high on numerous best-of lists, that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the problems affecting the rest of the country – things like growing economic inequality, profiling, prejudice and discrimination, climate change, and the impacts of militarism – the latter most evident locally in the expected arrival of F-35s at the airport. Contrary to my opponents, I don’t think it’s too late to stop this boondoggle from making parts of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski virtually uninhabitable.
On this and other questions -- whether we can keep Burlington Telecom as a public enterprise comes to mind -- what the mayor says and does can make a huge difference. 
It’s also important to understand that Burlington has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Yet current redevelopment plans will make matters worse. Climate change is real, and so is our basic inter-dependence. What we do matters, here and globally. So, before we give the waterfront or other neighborhoods a gentrified makeover that increases traffic -- and further drives up rents, we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system – to anticipate and adapt to the resource and climate-related challenges ahead.
Transparency and Diversity
A new local agenda is taking shape, and with it new priorities and a list of needed policy changes. Yes, this election is about the future. But it is also about understanding the past -- coming to terms with missteps, rediscovering what has worked – and doing things differently. No more rosy forecasts that hide uncomfortable realities, no more ambitious boondoggles and secret deals. When it comes to transparency, talk can be cheap -- at first. But it becomes costly when things turn sour.
In that regard, press conferences don’t equal transparency, and taking questions at a coffee shop isn't actually accountability. Those are media events and photo ops; the mayor is good at both. But we are still waiting for open government.
We're also still waiting for affordable housing and livable wages. Thirty years ago we had a 1 percent vacancy rate and people spent half their income on housing. Unfortunately, those figures haven’t changed. It's time to try something new.
Once Burlington was known as a buttoned up, extremely white business town. Today more than 25 percent of public school students come from other cultures, races, and countries. It's time to look at the city and the world differently. That’s why I strongly support the ballot item on non-citizen voting and service of newcomers on boards and commissions. But the commission system needs more improvements, with an emphasis on fair representation and empowerment.
I’m also excited about the proposals coming from the south end -- defending citizen interests from exploitive development, they want to preserve protective zoning and the district’s cultural/industrial designation. I agree, and will oppose any pending zoning changes that threaten residents and businesses in this dynamic, creative economy district. 
That said, the problem isn’t government. But government is only part of the solution. The community, businesses and independent contractors, students, teachers, artists, and all the 21st century knowledge workers - they need to be heard, and both their success and well-being need to be higher priorities. The goal is engagement – how to cultivate and grow it as well as we attend to the tax base.
Targets and Limits
As a candidate, it’s easy to say that you have a better answer for every issue or problem. I know that I don’t. But I am curious and like to listen, and have enough experience to conclude that there are usually more choices than those in charge -- or those with special interests – like to admit. In the 1970s Burlington residents were told that if the Southern Connector and a waterfront hotel, civic center and condos weren’t built very soon, the economy would go “down the tubes.” It obviously didn’t happen. They also wanted kiosks on Church Street and thought mass transit and bike paths were irrelevant fantasies. 
Now we are told that Burlington Telecom’s troubles and the downgrade by Moody’s mean that all bets are off: there is no alternative to leveraging public assets and infrastructure to spur as much growth as possible. But what kind, how much, and at what cost? Do we really want to look like the eastern version of Vale, Colorado in a few years? A Target in downtown Burlington, as a desirable anchor for the latest makeover of our mall?  That says a lot.
To me, it says the mayor is unnecessarily painting a target on the city’s back – a target for speculators, too-good-to-be true corporate schemes and irresponsible, overheated development. I’m running for mayor to say, not so fast! Let’s take the target off Burlington’s back. Let’s slow down and set some reasonable limits. There’s no need for a fire sale. We can do better than that.
How? To begin, by opening up, redefining what is possible and deciding what we want – and don’t want– including whether we need some basic standards for large private partners, and also by talking frankly – about the values and resources we hope to preserve, and the policies and approaches we need to change.
I’m pleased and honored to take part in the upcoming debates and the March 3 election.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

SOS - Burlington: From Secrets to Partnership

Remarks for Save Open Space Summit, Jan. 21, City Hall. 
Reimagine Burlington

   How did we get here? These days I often ask myself that kind of thing, looking back, thinking about the past. But 40 years ago, when I was new to Burlington, I thought mostly about the future, how it could be different and better.
   About that time I joined the faculty of Burlington College. It had another name then. Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, or just VICI. And one of the ideas of founder Steward LaCasce was to get away from "bricks and mortar" -- the big, expensive, campus-based model of higher education -- and, as much as possible, develop a community-based alternative, using existing resources and spaces around town. It was a practical form of involvement and interdependence.
   Eventually, the College did buy a building. But the idea of staying small and connected to the community persisted.
   At the time, the land we are here to save was owned by Vermont's Roman Catholic Diocese. The church purchased most of it from Burlington Free Press Publisher Henry Stacy in the 1870s. Before that it was farmland, and the city grew around it. A rolling meadow led to a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain, with a beach below, a forest of oak, red maple and pine at the southern edge, and a railroad tunnel under North Avenue. All in all, it is a special, irreplaceable piece of land.
   The church erected an imposing Victorian building, which housed orphans for a century. After World War II, the local diocese bought adjacent land and converted a cottage into a school for delinquents. After the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum and the Don Bosco School for Delinquent Boys closed, it became diocese headquarters and home for projects like Camp Holy Cross.
    So, the "school without walls" and the cloistered catholic campus near the lake. How did they get entangled? The answer begins with secrets, the first about what went on in the church -- and on that property.
   In the end dozens of former residents came forward, and revealed a dark, sordid history of physical and sexual abuse by nuns, priests and staff. Like other parts of the church, the diocese ultimately found itself under attack and in serious financial trouble. By May 2010, it had paid almost $20 million to settle 26 lawsuits. More were to follow. Selling the land was urgent to help cover up to $30 million in legal settlements for the abused.
    Developers expressed some interest, but disagreed about what the property was worth. There were also zoning restrictions, and some claimed the city was overvaluing the land. In any case, it went on the market in April 2010 for $12.5 million. The sale to BC for $10 million was announced on May 24, 2010, only a month later -- ten days after the diocese paid out $17. 65 million.  Based on about 200 housing units, a plan initially considered, a more reasonable price was probably $7 million or less.
   Why did the college pay that much? And what did its leaders expect? Like many decisions by private boards, it's mostly confidential, a shared secret. But we know the deal was promoted and brokered by Antonio Pomerleau, once known as the "godfather of Vermont shopping center development." Owner of Pomerleau Real Estate, a prominent, devoted Catholic who wanted to help the church, and a powerful, persuasive developer who for years chaired the Burlington Police Commission.
    In the early 1980s Pomerleau became an obvious target for Bernie Sanders, a capitalist mogul who wanted to rebuild the waterfront and controlled the Police Department. His $30 million waterfront redevelopment plan was derailed after Sanders' election as mayor. But the relationship changed. By the time College President Jane Sanders announced the purchase, Pomerleau was considered a family friend. In then-President Sanders' words, Pomerleau was the only man who could have made it happen. Someone to trust, who understood relationships. But it didn't hurt that he loaned the school $500,000 to close the deal. Yves Bradley, who subsequently became chair of the College's Board of Trustee, handled the 2010 transaction details for Pomerleau Real Estate.
   According to local sources, the school's leaders believed that, with connected friends like Sanders and Pomerleau, plus a Treasurer like Jonathan Leopold, handling the $10 million debt and $3 million for renovations was a reasonable expectation for a school with 200 students and revenues around $4 million a year. Big donors would come -- but they didn't. The Board also embraced another notion: that enrollment could double in five years, a goal well beyond the national average. It didn't.
    In retrospect, it sounds like magical thinking. Or just bad judgement. But somehow it made sense -- at least until September 2011, when Jane Sanders was forced to resign, mainly for not raising enough money. So began a three-year, silent slide toward insolvency.
    Exactly how many students attend BC today? Just how bad are its finances, and how did that happen? Why did one president resign suddenly in the parking lot? We don't know for sure. We also don't know whether the school will continue to exist as an independent college a year from now. 
    We could know more. We should. But it's a political hot potato. And the mayor has made it known that, although he's open to preserving a few "key attributes" for public use -- some forest, a garden, a path to the shore and Texaco beach -- he won't risk city funds or political capital. Instead, he's likely to wait until the deal is closed, then try to negotiate concessions during the zoning and permitting process. 
Many people in a position to make things happen, one way or another, appear to be on board with developer Eric Farrell's plan and the mayor's free market stance. But they are reluctant to say much.
    I'll conclude with a question and a vision. This land has seen more than enough secrets, loss and pain. Can't we find a better approach, a more open path? Can't we move from secrecy to partnership, a partnership in the public interest -- between conservation groups, local colleges, government and private capital -- brokered by engaged officials, combining sufficient housing with a modest campus, compatible projects, and as much open space as possible. With persistence, courage and political will, it can happen. 
    I still believe the future can be different -- and better. And that's why I think we're here.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

SOS-Burlington Summit Focuses on BC Land Deal

Burlington's Open Space Summit, convened as an all-wards Neighborhood Planning Assembly (NPA) meeting by SOS-Burlington, is a time for residents from across the city to gather and discuss how to save open land in the city, how growth can happen while conserving essential green space.
The proposed sale of the 32 acres presently owned by Burlington College for development into intensive mixed housing has aroused significant community opposition. The idea of filling one of the largest undeveloped waterfront green spaces in the city with houses, condos and apartment buildings and therefore necessarily with pipes, electric wires, driveways, roads, and cars does not work for Burlingtonians who have a vision of the city as a verdant community, accessible to all, embracing nature and able to contribute to local food production.

The development of the Burlington College land, as proposed, conflicts with Burlington's 2014 Open Space Protection Plan, the city's Climate Action Plan, and its Municipal Development Plan. It threatens fragile plant communities of state and local importance identified 14 years ago in a city-sponsored report.  It does not help solve the significant stormwater runoff problems the Department of Public Works is wrestling with. It interdicts wildlife corridors between the Intervale and Lake Champlain. It puts new demands on existing municipal infrastructure that is already overburdened. It will restrict or close access to a parkland used by Burlington residents over many years for walking, gardening, sledding, skiing and viewing Lake Champlain.  It contradicts the city's commitment to the preservation of open space as essential to a livable city.

Burlington has always voted for public land that is kept 'green' over that which is developed for private use.” said Diane Gayer, local architect and key convener of the group Save Open Space-Burlington. “We thrive as a city because we are willing to support municipal investment, but not at the expense of our common assets.”

This statement was developed and released by SOS-Burlington. Join the Facebook SOS Summit. For more information on Burlington's 2014 municipal open space protection plan, consult Open Space Protection Plan.  To reach SOS-Burlington, contact Andy Simon at (802) 999-5275, or sanschagrins@gmail.com

Monday, December 29, 2014

Burlington: platform for preservation and change





















Despite developer pressure and sweetheart deals on a variety of public-private partnerships and plans, real public input and sufficient time to consider all the options should be more than a formality, especially when the stakes are so high. Before rushing to sell or redevelop, inclusive alternatives and long-term impacts need to be more seriously considered.

We can't over-build our way out of problems. We must make the time to explore possibilities that create positive outcomes for all residents.

A Platform for Preservation and Change
Stop fast-track redevelopment 
Set standards for partnerships
Affordable housing * Raise the minimum wage
Keep BT Local * Preserve open spaces
Empower neighborhoods: funding for NPAs
Review police conduct * Legalize marijuana
Prevent bedding of F-35s at the airport

Burlington College: Unless the Mayor and City gets more involved very soon, more than 25 acres of land along the waterfront owned by Burlington College will be sold for the school to survive and intensively developed with commercial-rate housing. Mayor Weinberger claims that any development on this property must balance "conservation, public use, and housing." But the current plan calls for 400 units and little open space. With real city engagement, however, the current offer could be matched by a popular partnership between conservation groups, private investors, the college and the city to combine a small college campus, preservation of public access and open space, and compatible education purposes.

Climate Change: Burlington has seen a local increase of 7% in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, yet current redevelopment plans will only make the situation worse. Before we give the waterfront a gentrified makeover we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system for the 21st century.

Burlington Telecom: In its first 30 years of operation, the Burlington airport received about $100 million in transfers from the general fund. As infrastructure, Burlington Telecom is just as important today and, if we hold onto it, can provide long term benefits to thousands of citizens - but only if we look beyond short-term relief, resist the push to privatize, and protect this invaluable asset for future generations.

Democracy and Participation: One-party rule can be dangerous, especially when it gives the mayor a rubber stamp for whatever he or she wants. In the past Burlington has been known as a place with three viable parties where issues were discussed openly. But recently debate has been sidetracked on climate change, redevelopment and neighborhood concerns. We can do better. We need more democracy, not less.