Here are my remarks made tonight during the public forum at the Burlington City Council meeting regarding the resolution calling for an ad-hoc committee on municipal government transparency.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you all tonight.The City Council resolution passed unanimously, with some amendments. During the back-and-forth discussion before the actual vote, one of the Councilors rather condescendingly and in a needlessly defensive manner singled out my comments, calling attention to my reference to back room politics; he clearly did not listen to what I was saying. The public perception is that a lot Burlington's governmental processes are done in an almost-stealth manner (e.g. Westlake); decisions are made before the public has had an opportunity to chime in; oversight commissions appointed by City Council need to make sure the public is involved every step of the way. Now that this resolution has been approved, next steps include a public forum asking citizens what their concerns are about open government and transparency and what they want this committee to address.
I would like to speak in support of the proposed ad-hoc committee designed to address government openness and transparency.
Many citizens’ recent experiences have led them to believe that decisions in Burlington can be made in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” behind “closed doors.” In the 8 years since my return to Vermont, I have a keen appreciation for the way good government operates, as opposed to my experiences of “good ol’ boy” shenanigans when I lived in Texas. Although we know that in a literal sense our Mayor and City Council members are not meeting somewhere smoking cigars and shaking hands after hours, the perception of an opaque rather than a transparent system has left the public questioning the entire process we are supposed to trust in our great democracy. Many people feel like they cannot trust the process, because when they do, projects like Westlake are allowed to occur. The public is left feeling outraged, cynical, and isolated.
This ad-hoc committee addresses these negative perceptions in our community, and begins to rebuild the trust that has apparently been lost. As a member of Vermont Interfaith Action, a coalition of seven congregations in Burlington representing 2,000 families, I have heard a lot about the isolation and frustration people feel about many processes in Burlington.
VIA hosted a public meeting last February where 300 members of our congregations and the public came, along with our Mayor, CEDO director, City Attorney, and many City Council members. Although the meeting’s agenda specifically addressed the Westlake development and its development flaws, that project serves as an example of how the system in general can fail the public. We asked the Mayor and other City officials to join VIA in a partnership to address some of the issues we identified in our six months of research regarding the Westlake development, including issues about the lack of transparency involved in the process itself.
VIA believes the proposed committee you are considering tonight addresses the concerns of many of our congregations’ members, and is a step toward rebuilding the relationship between government and the people. I ask you to approve formation of this committee. I will even go further to ask you to consider me for appointment to this committee, not only as an engaged and informed Burlington resident, but also as a member of Vermont Interfaith Action.
Thank you again for the council’s commitment and willingness to address and rectify the perception of closed and broken government.
Apparently, my remarks were to be featured on tonight's Channel 3 news at 11. I don't subscribe to cable television, so if anyone saw me on WCAX, please let me know what they covered, or didn't!