You Can Quote Me -- March 7, 2010 -- Burlington City Council-elect Kurt Wright join Kristin Kelly and Keagan Harsha to discuss instant runoff voting and Burlington Telecom.
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This is "you can quote me."
Good morning everyone.
I'm Kristin Kelly.
thanks for being here.
Today we are talking about some big issues facing Burlington after voters weighed in on town meeting day and joining me for the show is Keagan Harsha.
>> Good to be here.
Earlier week Burlington residents voted by a narrow margin of 52 to 48% to repeal IRV.
We followed that issue on election night and as this review.
>> Organizers called it a grass roots effort that paid off.
The yes on 5 campaigns celebrated its victory Tuesday night.
After voters chose to repeal the instant runoff voting system.
>> We took a vote that everybody said passed by 65%.
And we turned that around after people experienced it and we won by a 4‑point margin.
>> That margin was not enough to satisfy mayor Bob kiss.
Reacting to the news Tuesday night, he said Burlington may need to vote on IRV again.
He blamed high voter turnout in wards 4 and 7 and low voter turnout in the other wards for IRV's defeat.
>> And I think in other words there are more modest and ‑‑ if we heat that up debate, we may get a better measure of Burlington's review.
>> When they first adopted IRV in march of 2005 by a margin of 65% to 35%, voter turnout was even lower.
7550 people cast their ballots that day compared to the 7695 people who voted Tuesday.
In both years, wards 4 and 7 made up 42% of the total vote.
With the other 5 wards combining to make the other 58%.
>> I think we had a hard‑fought campaign and we need to accept the results and say let's move forward.
>> Representative Jason was just one of the people who made up the 50% matters campaign that tried to convince voters to keep IRV.
The group also argued that going back to the old system, which requires a may oral candidate to get just 40% of the vote to win, is weaker than a system that requires 50%.
>> As far as 50% I think that is still important and even supporters on their side said hey let's look at this after the election.
So we will take them at their word.
Hope they come to the table and say let's address that.
>> IRV opponents did agree during the debates to take a look at 50%.
And on Wednesday, city counselor Karen Paul, who denounced IRV, said ideally the city does need to up that threshold.
>> We are joined this morning by Kurt Wright who is now back on the city council and opponent of IRV.
Congrats on being elected back to the council
>> Thank you.
Appreciate you having me on the show today.
>> Just listening to that peels it sounds like the mayor would like to see IRV back on the ballot once again down the road and after just watching that, do you think there is a chance that may happen?
>> Well, there is a chance anything may happen.
But I think that would be a huge mistake.
I think it would be a huge mistake for the mayor, progressive coalition in Burlington who have already taken a huge hit in the election.
IRV was defeated which is really a baby brain child of the progressives originally and like minded democrats.
That was defeated at the polls.
Dramatic turn‑around from just 5 years ago.
They lost another progressive counselor, down to 2 progressive counselors.
That's the lowest number that I can remember since the inception of the progressive party in Burlington.
I down believe there has ever been a time when Republicans had more city counselors than progressives.
Mayor kiss has more on his plate than he can handle now and to suggest as the mayor has, that perhaps turnout wasn't high enough, for his liking, and that the turnout was higher in the new north end than it was in other wards, should voters in the new north end not have voted?
is he suggesting ‑‑ I mean, people in the new north end came out and voted.
And the reality is, they need to accept the verdict of the voters as Jason said.
And I think it would be a tremendous mistake.
Think they will get a backlash from the voters that will be far greater than they have seen yet if they try to subvert the will of the voters by saying just a few months later we want to go back and have a revote on this.
They need to support the legislature.
This going to the legislature and being passed by the legislature as charter changes are, that don't have constitutional issues.
>> It sounds like you are saying that this was a referendum on Bob kills and his administration.
>> Well, think that it was a message to mayor kiss, but do I think ‑‑ I think, though, first of all the people, the thousands of people, 52%, that voted to repeal IRV, I think clearly everyone that talked to me, did not like the system.
They think it is a fatally flawed system.
A system that didn't deliver on the rhetoric of the promise that it had given to voters 5 years earlier.
The person with the most votes finished first.
Me in this case N traditional voting did not win.
The person that got the most combined first and second place votes didn't win.
Many people felt that it stifled real debate, real good healthy vigorous debate.
It didn't deliver on cleaner campaigns or do away with negative campaigns that people had promised.
And never mind the turnout for potential runoffs as proponents say.
Turnout seems to be plum etting in regular, the first elections through IRV.
In the 90s, canes to compare this to, in the '90s, we had 10, 11, 12 thousand people showing up to vote.
We are getting turnout now dipping under 9,000 for the last election.
And I think that by the nature of what IRV produces by the nature of what it is, I doesn't produce exciting campaigns and what brings voters out to the polls?
>> Well let's look at some of the criticisms of the old system, though.
You know you narrowly lost to Bob kills in the last election because of IRV and that's the argument there but you know, I have heard it said that it would be a lot more expensive to run elections the way we used to run the elections, it saves tax papers a lot of money.
It delays a budget vote.
Going tack to the old system.
>> No I don't think it delays any budget votes.
Going back to the old system we would have a real runoff race if you didn't clear 40%.
The old system was, simply this: Most votes wins.
You got a clear threshold of 40%.
If you clear the 40% there is no runoff required.
If you didn't then there would be a runoff.
The runoff would be 2, 3 weeks down the road.
voters would have a chance to reexamine the candidates.
Could seek endorsements from those candidates.
But the money, let's talk about the money that it would cost.
It might cost 15 thousand dollars and remember that no money has been saved because under the old system we never required a runoff.
And on ‑‑ in an instance where we would require one, I think it would be well worth the small expenditure of $15,000.
Right now we have 17 million dollars missing floating around Burlington and with telecom issues.
And the idea that we wouldn't want to spend $15,000 or 15 to 18, 20 thousand whatever it is to decide who is going to lead the city forward for three more years, I think would be wrong headed.
I think it is certainly well worth that small investment of money.
>> Now I know there are 7, 8 other cities nationwide that vote under the IRV system and I have heard the argument made that this vote here will have implications elsewhere, whether it be across the states or across the country.
Do you believe that's true?
I think the ramifications are going to be felt statewide and nationally.
And I think that's why people are scrambling to try to save IRV in Burlington and try to do anything they can to keep IRV from being overturned in Burlington, you know overturning the voters well basically.
I got a call from reporter in portland, Maine saying they are considering it and he told me that portland would be watching very closely what will happen in Burlington on town meeting day.
And other cities around the country.
And ‑‑ but we are not the first that's repealed IRV.
A handful of municipalities around the country have IRV.
And as they have seen the results, over 1, 2 elections just as Burlington d they have repealed it.
>> Now when you look at the results of this vote, on IRV, it indicates that these wards that the mayor talks about, 4 and 7, your ward, are in a divide with the rest of the city is what he is saying.
Is there a cultural divide in Burlington?
>> Well, I mean, clearly the new north end wards 4 and 7 are different than the other wards.
But, all the votes count.
I mean, ward 4 and 7, the new north end is part of Burlington the last I looked.
And I don't think the mayor should be in a position where he is insulting the voters of the new north end as he did earlier this week or election night saying calling the voters of new north end naysayers.
Naysayers if they happen to disagree with the voting system that he likes, they came out to send a message that they didn't like this voting system.
Early this not comfortable with it.
And this I think it is a fatally flawed system.
He apologized that for the next daily and I'm glad he did but this is the second in a week or so where the mayor has said something that's really kind of over the top and somewhat insulting.
He also said the week before he said that people were ‑‑ it was simply a sour grapes campaign by people who wanted to repeal IRV if their candidate didn't win and I can assure you for the thousands of people across the new north end and others in the rest of the cities, don't forget in ward 6 it was basically dead even.
For the thousands of people that voted to repeal IRV they believe it is a bad system of voting.
I is not about being naysayers and not about sour grapes.
It is about how we elect a mayor in the future.
>> Proponents would say the system allows voters to elect a candidate that is more like‑minded if they are top choice doesn't win the voice.
I ‑‑ vote.
A progressive would be unlikely to vote for you for their second choice so they would like to argue that we are getting a candidate that is second best.
>> Well, down think that we should ‑‑ I don't want a system where we try to find the candidate that least offends anybody.
That is shall everybody's second or third‑place choice.
That's not what we should be looking for.
I mean the system that we had in place before elected Bernie sanders, Peter Clavell, Peter was elected two of those mayors were elected with 40 something%.
P and they seem to go on to do pretty well in their career in politics.
Bernie sanders, if he had son such a poor job wouldn't be with 40 something% the first time.
He wouldn't have been reelecting and gone oto have a career such as he has had becoming a United States senator and Peter Clavell being elected in 1995, but finishing first with the most votes, if that had been such an issue with the voters he would have been rejected in the next race but again he went on to be the longest serving mayor in the history of Burlington.
So the system that we had in place worked quite well.
I made a commitment to people that if we repealed IRV, that if people wanted to put the 50% question on versus 40%, move the threshold up to 50%, that I would certainly be ‑‑ you know in favor of doing that.
I think for me, 40% is good.
It is a ‑‑ it is a good threshold, a balance.
We don't have to have a runoff every single time.
And I don't think people sit around wringing their hands if somebody gets elected as Peter and Bernie did with 45%.
Presidents have been elected with less than 50%.
Bill Clinton, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson.
Governors have been.
And mayors in Burlington have been.
So I'm certainly committed as I said to people, that if they want to put that on, that we can let the voters decide that.
but I would certainly pull back my commitment on is if there is an attempt by people to try to subvert the will of the voters in this town meeting day election by ‑‑ and just months from now and coming back and having a different vote because them didn't like the outcome.
>> Is there ‑‑ talking about criminal charges in the criminal investigation here, do you think that's going ‑‑ when you look at Burlington telecom, I'm wondering how much of this vote reflected the voters' opinions on telecom and whether they were concerned by what was going on there.
>> Well you know I'm not really prepared to talk too much about the criminal investigation.
We know there is one.
But I don't think it would be prudent of me to talk much about that until we see where that goes, if anywhere.
Let's see what happens on that.
As far as did it have any effect on the vote, I mean, you know, people to the extent that people are unhappy with city government right now, I guess you could make that charge, but again, I actually think that the vote in favor of repealing IRV, actually is more than the 52%.
Only because we had some people that told us that I had a real life exams of people telling me and others I'm sure who never did tell me but didn't vote for the repeal because they didn't elect the 40% issue versus 50, they got confused by that.
some people had told me they thought it was a whole brand‑new thing and didn't realize it was a system we had in place for 40 years.
So, I'm sure that we lost not a huge number of votes but at least a small percentage of votes to that.
But in terms of mayor kiss, I mean there is no question.
I think if there was a referendum on mayor kiss right now, without have been significantly higher than the 52%.
I think that people are extremely unhappy with what is going on in the city.
How the Burlington telecom fiasco has been handled by the administration.
And you know there is no question that there is voter discontent out there, big‑time.
>> All right.
Think this a good place to take a break.
Will talk more about Burlington telecom just after this.
>> We are talking about big issues in Burlington following town meeting day and one of them is Burlington telecom.
The city owned cable company is 51 million dollars in debt.
Our business reporter Kate Duffy took a look at the problem.
>> As Burlington telecom struggles with 51 million dollars in debt, both the public and Vermont lawmakers are asking how it got in so deep so fast.
>> A high ‑‑ requires a lot of capital.
There wasn't a plan rollout essentially in the beginning that this is how we are going to do it.
It was an as you go.
>> Chris burns told the senate committee this week that the company's revenues did not match its expenditures.
The city's attorneys said building the network cost more than expected.
Accessing capital to pay its expenses became impossible when the credit market crashed.
So in 2008 the city tapped the pooled cash reserves for $17 million.
Something they later realized violated BT's operating certificate.
>> To a certainly extent we were victims of the credit market.
On the other hand, we could have, should have, understood the implications of using ‑‑ of not having access to the credit market.
And the violation of condition 60.
We should have come forward sooner.
>> Could they have seen it earlier?
probably could have.
Why them didn't, I can't tell you.
But I think now they are unfortunately paying the price for that.
>> Steve shepherd is a telecommunications industry analyst.
He says the city took on too much too fast.
Likely not realizing the high costs of building, running and maintaining a telecom network
>> If you look around at the competition that's out here, I mean we've got fair.they are not ‑‑ they are not in particularly good financial situation it is.
I mean there are some minimal environmental clues here that say this is not an easy business to be in unless you have the right mix of customers and services and soon.
‑‑ so on.
I'm not convinced they do and I think perhaps what happened was a little too much optimism on the part of the city running the business.
>> He says he thinks there is a future for telecom though it is limited in the market size.
It is what he calls a fiber rich network with a lot of high‑speed transport available.
On outside investor should run it as a telecom company.
>> What we do know is that very few of these municipal phone company kind of environments have worked out.
For the very simple reason that this is a unique kind of a business and you don't run it ‑‑ you can't run it like a city.
>> Kate Duffy, channel 3 news Burlington.
>> Once again we are joined this morning by city council elect Kurt Wright.
Thrills a future for Burlington telecom?
>> Well, that's the 100 million dollar question.
51 million dollar question or 17 million dollar question.
I hope there is again going door to door I talked to people who have Burlington telecom and like the service.
But, the problem is, we are ‑‑ we are heavily in debt now.
And though it provides a good service, provides competition to come cast which is I think a good thing, and a valuable service to businesses in Burlington and could be a tool for economic development, we can't obviously continue plunging down the path of what we are ‑‑ what the city has done is 17 million dollars of taxpayer money out of the cash pool which of course was ‑‑ we know is a violation of the city charter and the stay license.
We just heard the city attorney admit that they should have come forward obviously much sooner and that clip that you just played.
And I think that was probably the biggest mistake that was made was not being forth coming about this from the get‑go.
Because now I think they have put us in a really difficult lose‑lose‑type situation.
So I think that we need to implement the recommendations of the Burlington, the blue ribbon panel, the committee, that said that the city out to ‑‑ ought to pull back from this and have them become Burlington, Inc. with another investor hopefully joining them and I know there are a couple of possibilities out there.
and I think as we move forward we need to make some desixings by the city council.
Hopefully work together.
Think at times we have had the council over here and the mayor over here and a war of words going on.
And can understand it to a degree but we need to find some solutions now.
And then we ‑‑ I think the city council and the city has been frozen, paralyzed by this issue.
There are other issues out there we need to begin to deal with.
>> I think I have heard some taxpayers say how didn't anyone on the city council know what was happening at the time and you were on the council.
What didn't you know and what did you know
>> What did you know and when did you know it.
The old water gate phrase from Howard baker.
What we knew on the finance board beforehand was that ‑‑ and the city council in general knew was that Burlington telecom was developing financial problems but obviously constantly impanelled in executive sex and told repeatedly that to share any of the information that we heard would torpedo and sink Burlington telecom so when people asked me why didn't the council do something, what we were told is that there was ‑‑ that the city had financial problems, they were bringing in someone from ma mark a new person to oversee operation and to come up with a new plan that, they were confident would work.
There was little that the council could do in terms of we were kept in ‑‑ we were told everything must remain confidential or you will be the cause of Burlington telecom going under.
Certainly myself and counselor reminded me of that he remembers me constantly asking throughout the last few years the question at the finance board and full council, if Burlington, this is before we knew there were any problems, if they were to run into problems, and worst case scenario, is there any risk to tax payers and I was condition SFNT ‑‑ constantly told no there will never be any risk to the taxpayers.
Turned out that that's really not been true.
And of course if I knew anything additional, as a person who was asking that question repeatedly, and a mayor's race beginning that I was entering, certainly would I not have agreed to keep that quiet.
As a person ‑‑ as I said who was entering the mayor's rails and who would ask repeatedly if there were any.
If I was told well you know we are beginning to use taxpayers money to the tune of millions and millions of dollars and violating our state lie sense and our city charter, I don't think that I would have given the administration a pals on that for sure.
I mean, I don't think would I have.
I certainly would not have given them a pass so what we knew was that there were developing problems.
The administration assured thaws they were dealing with those problems and that they were confident that they were going to be able to go forward successfully and there was not going to be any risk to taxpayers.
>> What would happen to people who didn't give that information up early on?
>> Well, I think that right now if we are talking about the mayor and the CAO, the mayor will be facing re‑election in two years if he chooses to run.
I think he would fails the verdict of the voters for that.
I think the voters do not look kindly at that type of thing.
In terms of anything else, there is no removal process in the city of Burlington for a mayor regardless of what they have done.
That's what we have learned through this process.
Even if a mayor was actually to be, and I'm not charging this or whatever but if a mayor was convicted of a crime, they could not still be removed from office.
There is no removable.
There is no impeachment process there.
there is no recall provision.
I constantly have voters say let's have a recall or let's im‑‑ you can't do that.
it is not in our charter.
I have committed to voters in this election when I ran and one by the way, an election I was very gratified to win against a popular incumbent, I told voters that I would upon rejoining the council would push for a charter change next year to add a recall provision to our city charter because I think it is very needed.
Down the road who knows what may happen and there always should be some kind of provision if you ever got to a case where you had to do that.
think it has to be done carefully.
I don't think you want to have the trigger be done on some kind of a Willie nilly basis where you ‑‑ you know you could have a recall done for just about any reason.
It has got to be done carefully.
trigger has to be put in place carefully.
>> You are also state legislator.
To what extent do you think the legislator should get involved with this discussion?
>> I think the legislature should do what it has always done which is to pass them.
Rubber stamp the charter changes of any town unless there is a constitutional issue.
When IRV was passed in ‑‑ you are talking about what they should do ‑‑ well, we saw the city go to a senate committee as you just played that clip.
And they are asking for ‑‑ my understanding they were asking for a change by the legislature so that they could go to the voters.
I don't have a problem.
My position has been that if the city wants to go in a different direction to risk more risk to tax payers, they should go to the voters.
And what they are asking for, I think is bonding authority possibility.
Now I don't know.
I need to hear more in terms of if it set some kind of a press he company but in terms of the city going to voters if there is more risk I'm certainly in support of the city going to voters if they choose to go in a different path than the blue ribbon committee recommendations.
>> Which is to get a corporate partner?
Which there are a couple of possibilities out there.
we need to ‑‑ we need to remove the taxpayers from any greater risk in this.
I mean we have already got $17 million that we don't know that will ever be repaid.
He doesn't think we can continue to throw good money after bad in this situation.
>>> The mayor does not support the idea of a corporate partner.
How is this going to w on the city council when there are only two progressives on the council, more Republicans as you point out than progressives for the first time.
>> And far more democrats.
How is this all going to work now?
>> Well, my hope is that the mayor will and the council will begin to work together.
I mean that's going to be my position.
That's what we need to do.
I hope that the mayor doesn't get into a corner and simply refuse to come out of it and want to go in a different direction and you know, threaten or do a veto if we get to that.
I hope we don't get to that..
But ‑‑ because he doesn't have ‑‑ I think there are times that you have to realize I mean certainly governor Douglas for example when he's come back and faced the legislature that's been overwhelmingly not of his party, has had to reach out and work together with the other side.
You have to face political reality here.
And the mayor is in that situation.
He only has two progressive counselors as you pointed out.
And he ‑‑ he needs to face political reality here and work together with the council.
I hope at the same time that the council doesn't ‑‑ that we don't just engage in political bomb throwing either.
That we attempt to work together.
We need to find a solution to this and then we need to move on, let though solutions work.
We need to move on on economic provisions, we need to ‑‑ I mean we just saw Gallagher and Flynn leave the city again.
A business that had been here for decades.
We lost GE.
It is ‑‑ we have got downtown businesses, store fronts that are vacant now.
We need to be looking at what we can do to economic ‑‑ to provide economic development in this city.
Or we are not going to be ‑‑ continue to be the economic center of this state eventually.
Seeing people leave as we just did to the outlying areas, the south Burlington, Colchester, Williston.
So we can't ‑‑ we can just sit back and be paralyzed by the Burlington telecom issue forever though I understand it has been a huge issue and we need to make some decisions.
But it is time to make those decisions.
Definitively work together to solve the problems and move on to these other critical issues as well.
>> We have 20 seconds.
What's the other big issues you see coming up for the next year coming up for the city of Burlington?
>> The economic development issues are huge.
Think those are things we have got to pay attention to.
I think we need to bring the brightest people together, bills leaders around the city.
And find out what their ideas are and work together to implement some representations there to make sure that Burlington does stay a vibrant economic engine of the state.
>> All right.
City council elect Kurt Wright.
Thanks for coming.
Thanks for being here today.
>> Thanks for having me.
>> Have a great day.