Image: General George Washington Resigning His Commission, John Trumbull, oil on canvas, commissioned 1817, public domain.
Burlington’s government has roots that auger downward through history to touch a bedrock of first principles. These are the organizing thoughts that define fairness in human experience where individuals have chosen to live together as a commonwealth. From those roots grow the stalk, branches, and fruit that is our civilization, a humble and humbling result of the practice of democracy. For growth at the top — for us to confront and resolve new challenges to our wellbeing; to innovate improvements that bring us closer to inclusion and equity in alignment with the ideals that nourish our civic world from below — the circuit from root to fruit must flow freely in government. Our ideals must always be present and freshly informing the resolutions that affect everyone. We occupy a sacred space created by philosopher-revolutionaries and the sacrifices of prior generations; to be engaged in our particular civilization is an honor and a privilege made possible by the mortal struggles of others. For it to be sustained we all have to carry a civilizing torchlight forward with gravitas and optimism. That responsibility rests on us all.
Below is an inventory of opportunities for our city government to grow with self-direction into a better and more inclusive version of itself. Most were delivered to the Community and Economic Development Office at the invitation of its interim director. CEDO is creating protocols that improve public input processes, a step toward systemizing and practicing equity in Burlington. The list faces-down the asperity of customs that have bottlenecked public participation or prevented it altogether. It offers a few realistic incremental prescriptions arising from first-hand experiences and includes contributions from others, credited.
But, before that, please consider this one specific current example of where we could make a simple but important aspirational, positive-minded and obvious improvement to city government, confronting the ‘tyranny of custom.’
End the Tradition of Permanent Voting Board Seats in City Government
Burlington has a politicized tradition of automatic re-appointment of incumbent commissioners, and term limits are a rare thing. Former city councilors have described the appointment process as rife with favoritism. With a self-selecting board, Burlington City Arts stands out as an exemplar of the city’s entrenched influencers. In 2015 the BCA advisory board altered the BCA bylaws to permit board members to be re-elected annually to their voting seats even after completing the three, three-year terms that were earlier allowed by the bylaws. The BCA board named these seats ‘Honorary’ — and the BCA director has described them as “rewards.” The effect on our community is to exclude new people — and their vision, experience, and diverse perspectives — from the advisory body that informs the use of almost $1,000,000 in tax funding for the arts and from the decisions relating to arts policy that should benefit from the most representative deliberation possible.
The BCA board and staff are dedicated and earnest in their support of the arts. But this alone doesn’t ensure the quality of our democratic process, which is the domain of our city’s elected officials. It’s on them in their oversight of BCA, a city department, to make certain it adheres to basic expectations of fairness. At present, under the watch of the administration and BCA Director and in the name of the City of Burlington, advisory board members have crowned themselves after a tradition that may have a place in the private world, but not at all in a municipal environment. Bestowing permanent influence on a few individuals over such a great sum of taxpayer treasure and governance is simply wrong and does not pass the smell test of a healthy democracy. While Mayor Weinberger has explained, “I make the decisions,” those decisions are informed by a gated and exclusive patronage.
At the September 18, 2018 annual meeting of BCA, the board continued to re-elect board members to these “honorary” voting positions. Board members Dana vanderHeyden and Barbara Perry each voted themselves into these seats. This self-electing body of mayoral appointees, overseen by Burlington’s city council, continues to elect itself to permanent positions of influence within city government. The benefit of continuity and experience that these extended board positions provide does not outweigh the effect of exclusion of others from the city board. BCA has argued that since all 21 board seats are not filled, these ‘honorary’ seats do not exclude anyone. The argument actually compounds the effect of exclusion; it illuminates that more community voices could be participating presently but have not been invited into the unfilled board seats.
The original three three-year terms of the bylaws was generous, and civic leaders completing terms of that duration should be prepared to coach new representation onto the board, rather than cling to the perceived ‘honor’ of occupying the seat perpetually, which can be reasonably interpreted as self-serving. It’s not in the interest of sustaining vitality or harnessing contemporary experience for the benefit of Burlington’s arts and community.
“The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.” — John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty,’ 1859
“We’ve always had that special class; we gave the name “Honorary” to that class. It’s not new to the way that we function.” —Doreen Kraft, BCA Director, 2018
BCA has argued that they have always had these annually renewing voting board seats. That argument is moot for its lack of principle. Habit and tradition in Western culture include several hundred years of murderous religious crusades and, closer to our time and location, racism. We shouldn’t choose to validate a faulty system of governance with an argument of this type, perpetuating the tyranny of custom.
BCA has argued that other nonprofit organizations maintain similar permanent board positions, and has pointed to the Vermont Community Foundation as an example. This demonstrates (in stark terms) that BCA’s leadership references the independent private nonprofit sector as its procedural touchstone and neglects to acknowledge that it is a municipal office in an environment of democratic governance. This is the crux of the insularity, entitlement and lack of transparency that infuses this conversation.
It isn’t comfortable to approach our government — a product of our own invention, reflective of ourselves — with critique. But it’s the way of self-care, of adulting, of civic responsibility and ultimately pride. As a people, we aren’t proud of the good things we don’t accomplish; we’re proud of the best things we do accomplish. As we choose to examine the quality of our democracy we’ll find opportunities to task ourselves with betterment, with reminders of our values, and with the noble notion that the branches of our civilization could reach higher into the blue Burlington firmament. Eliminating permanent incumbency would be an honorable beginning.
“But Goethe tells us in his greatest poem that Faust lost the liberty of his soul when he said to the passing moment: “Stay, thou art so fair.” And our liberty, too, is endangered if we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress. For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy, 1963
“The lack of response is the response.” — Doreen Kraft, BCA Director, 2015
Video of public comments excerpted from full-length recording of the BCA Annual Meeting, September 18, 2018, produced by CCTV Town Meeting Television, published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Thoughts for improving public input process and engagement with the city
This is a living and incomplete list of ways Burlington’s city government could improve the quality of public engagement processes. Some are technical and some are humanist; expect to find ideas at every scale of relevance. If you’d like your ideas added to the list and credited, please send them!
- Make sure that public art programs are informed by all cultures and demographics. Examine the ELAP mural public input as a resource.
- Provide financial support for Neighborhood Planning Assemblies (NPAs) to accomplish Ward-specific public outreach and engagement.
- Make authentic statements of support for NPAs, for their role as advisors to decisions about City policy and plans. Be an ally and harness their engagement efforts.
- Publish contact information for all board members, commissioners, and advisory or decision-making body members that serve the city.
- Impose term limits on all boards, commissions, and advisory bodies to sustain opportunities for participation. For reference: https://cherrycoal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/BCA-City_Council.pdf
- Host public meetings during times that public transportation is available. (A note taken from Amanda Hannaford)
- Host public meetings on days other than significant religious holidays for diverse faiths, including Catholic and Jewish. (A note taken from Amanda Hannaford)
- Provide child care at public meetings.
- Provide obvious alternate avenues of public input at regular or special meetings for people who are afraid or unaccustomed to speaking to a formal body or using a microphone, etc.
- Reach out to culturally diverse community groups and persevere when it is difficult to communicate or organize meeting with them (anticipate this difficulty).
- Ensure uncurated (truly accessible) public bulletin boards are found in Burlington and publish city meeting info to them.
- Always include NPA delegate(s) in any city-created group that includes other non-city stakeholders as advisors to City processes, like street design or park planning, when the group’s input or decisions will influence specific wards. Note that BBA — an expensive, paid membership association — is often a downtown stakeholder/influencer while NPAs remain unrepresented in these ad hoc cohorts.
- Provide lead-time when requesting the City Council to make any decision, to allow councilors to process their thoughts and interact with their constituents about it before voting. (A note taken from Jane Knodell)
- Retain an ombudsperson. One department’s director has stated that ‘the lack of response is the response,’ a dead-end for local democracy.
- Build relationships with NPA steering committees which meet outside of regular, publicized NPA meetings.
- Note that NPAs receive more requests for presentations than they can include in monthly NPA meeting agendas. CEDO could work with NPA steering committees to ensure that when public input is needed for City projects, it can be planned for in a timely way to occur at NPA meetings. Note also that NPA meetings are often not held during mid-summer.
- Some city council committees are moderated to allow public input at the time of specific agenda items, which helps with flow and efficiency.
- When the public is conversing directly with city leaders (rather than simply commenting) as part of the intentional agenda of a public meeting, they should be invited to respond to comments by leaders that are directed against them or the the topic of their advocacy. (This might sound logical, but I’ve experienced misinformed criticism and the moderating councilor did not facilitate my responding to it).
- Don’t demonize opponents of ideas but rather re-cultivate a widespread culture of respectful, informed, and civil discourse.
- Offer public workshops in how to understand meetings (Robert’s Rules of Order) and be accepting of diverse opinions. City departments could invite the public to short presentations and mixers that help residents understand the department’s function in city government and how residents can participate in their work.
- Beyond asking for public input, consider ways the city can engage local residents or groups actively as partners in meaningful projects. The public represents resources of experience and wisdom and social capital. This kind of relationship-building will lessen the load on government and demonstrate the efficacy of collaboration. It’s next-level civic engagement.
- Ensure the city’s open data portal meets its potential for comprehensiveness and how current the data is. Invite civic technologists to problem-solve with the city, using the data.
- When public talks or presentations are hosted by the city, avoid homogeneously privileged, white, male presenting groups. (This comment comes from the recent Plan BTV South End presentations at Burton, where the four local business leaders/presenters were all middle-aged males reflecting on economic — not social — issues related to planning.)
- Include youth and young adults in public processes, to encourage an engaged next-generation of residents. Express that the City values their input and perspective. The city used to have a youth council and youth-led teen center.
- Ask the mayor’s office to respond to every written comment or request for a meeting, even if it’s with a boiler-plate postcard that says he’s too busy to respond personally. It’s profoundly discouraging to reach out with input and have the effort ignored by the person who’s expected to represent the standard for engagement in the local democratic process.
- Does the city have a general suggestion box, that isn’t just for the practical issues that SeeClickFix addresses?
- Make the supporting documents of agendas more searchable and accessible in the city meetings calendar system.
- Make the city meeting calendar system less complex and more intuitive. It takes several clicks to get to agendas, is hard to navigate ‘backward,’ and events aren’t always presented as a complete or chronological list.
- Not all public meetings are warned. Require that irregular public meetings are warned. (I was unable to participate in the City Hall Park organizing/design cohort because requests for meeting info weren’t responded to when that process began).
- Have the city meeting calendar section of the web site emphasize that all residents are warmly encouraged to participate.
- Provide content on the city’s web site that humanizes city leaders and dept. heads, like photos and biographies. This might help make public meetings seem less abstract. Only contact info is provided there, now.
- Make the ‘I’d like to say something’ form available online instead of just on a table at city council or other public meetings. Make sure it is promoted and linked-to within the published meeting info, so people can arrive with it and not feel pressured to fill out paperwork at the meeting itself, which usually involves walking in front of a crowd to deliver it to staff.
- Host a live song, poetry, etc. in the beginning of city council meetings to include the public in a different mode than the public comment period, and make meetings feel less threateningly formal. (The legislature has ‘opening devotionals.’)
- Ensure video of public meetings is published to YouTube, which allows sharing videos from start-points within the videos. This will help residents share content that’s important to them and carry those conversations forward (on social media, etc.).
- Provide financial or technical support and connectivity to any NPA that seeks to engage a homebound audience through live-streaming technologies like Facebook Live. (The All-Wards NPA requested $2,000 per ward from the city for public engagement projects, including $500 for technology like this).
- Make more chairs available on the floor when there are overflow crowds at city council meetings, even if those chairs are self-help on chair racks.
- Encourage community groups to table in the lobby of city hall during City Council meeting, enlivening City Hall as a venue for discourse.
- Create more ‘photo ops’ for the public with the mayor or city council — taking advantage of how comfortably ubiquitous selfies are or building on the panoramic group shots that are occasionally taken in City Hall Park, etc.. This might lower perceived barriers to engaging with city government and make some meetings compelling with a purposeful community-building experience.
- Include a lightning talk presentation by a community group in every city council meeting (three minutes, but formally on the agenda and with A/V). That three minutes could be a regular investment in audience-building for meetings and an authentic community engagement tradition.
- Somehow recognize that not every resident will want to provide comment verbally. Visual art or music, etc., might be a person’s comfort zone. The city would live up to higher standards of empathy if it purposefully invited ‘alternative’ public comment.
- Consolidate and publish public feedback that arrives from all directions. Be sure the words on PDFs (of public input data shared as spreadsheets, for example) aren’t too small to read.
- Mandate that department heads encourage high quality public engagement. (I have been told by a department head that they specifically discourage their colleagues from speaking with me. This is a destructive practice that erodes good faith.)
- Make sure there is viable wifi available at public meetings so city staff, P.E.G. cable television stations, or attendees with mobile devices can stream live. (Note provided by Tony Redington).
- Invite and value public feedback during the annual review of City department heads.
- When city officials or contracted consultants are presenting at a public meeting, allow questions during the presentation, not just at the end of a long PowerPoint. (Note provided by Andy Simon)
- Posting ‘sticky notes’ on a proposed plan or map is not perceived by the public as a meaningful input process. (Note provided by Andy Simon)
- Take design ideas solicited from the public seriously. This specifically refers to the design charrette for the downtown redevelopment project. A functional, reasonably proportioned design was arrived at, then deleted and modified without further public input. (Note provided by Andy Simon)
- Invite sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to vote
- Provide free bus rides on election day
Charles Winkleman contributed the following thoughts and has done a lot of research about the composition of city commissions, helping to identify ways to make them more equitable. See his three-part blog post, ‘Are Burlington’s Boards and Commissions Representative?‘
- Make the City Commission appointment process as apolitical as possible. “The current process to get on a commission is a byzantine political affair where you have to apply to the position, try talking to as many city councilors as possible, then show up for an awkward interview. Then councilors from different parties then meet and trade spots on different commissions, regardless of whether the person being put forward would be the best person to offer an important and different perspective. It’s hard to tell how much the application or interview actually matters in the councilors’ minds, and it seems that the process is less about creating diverse commissions that can speak to the many diverse needs of our community and more about who is friends with whom and who is owed a favor for doing _____ for whichever party.”
- Change the City Commission appointment application form. “Change the application so it’s easy to fill out online, is marked clearly on the city website (seriously try to find the list of open commission seats and what those commissions do from the city’s homepage), doesn’t require you to tell your educational background (unless those with less education are considered marginalized voices) and doesn’t require you to write in references (a way to make the process a who’s who affair, to signal that you are part of the ‘in’ crowd).
- Advertise open commission positions, and put $ behind going out into the community to recruit folks from marginalized communities. “This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want marginalized members of the community to apply, you need to do the work and seek them out and invite them in. This won’t be perfect, especially if folks don’t get on commissions the first time, but there’s clearly a need for more commissioners who aren’t wealthy and white to apply.”
- Treat civilian commissions like civilian commissions. “Another big problem with many of the boards and commissions, particularly those with the most financial influence and power, are the strict limitations of who can be on those commissions. It makes sense that 1 person on the Church Street Marketplace Commission is a Church Street business owner, but if most members have to be business owners, that’s not a civilian commission; it’s a government-sanctioned business lobbying group. If every board is a civilian board, then nearly ANY civilian should be able to be on the board. And if citizens don’t have the necessary skills or education, then it’s the city’s job to bring commissioners up to speed, not pick from a handful of already knowledgeable residents.”