Burlington gets a new mayor
By Kevin Joseph Ryan
The past few years have been gloomy ones for Burlington. Under former progressive Mayor Bob Kiss, the City has suffered through a recession, scandal and legal difficulties with its city-owned Telcom company, FAA investigations and bonding questions at it’s municipal airport, a downgrade in its credit rating and a general lost of trust in leadership. Kiss got off to a good start in 2006, replacing an incomprehensible white flag flying over the City’s war memorial with a United States flag, but quickly misstepped with a call for a city-wide ban on handgun ownership. The administration never quite recovered and Kiss chose not to stand for re-election in 2012.
The Queen City of Vermont now has a new Mayor. Democrat Miro Weinberger took office Monday night, April 2, amidst a packed City Hall Auditorium crowd of hundreds. Last month, Weinberger was able to defeat long-time City Councilor and State Representative Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) to become the next Mayor of Burlington by a wide margin. As Burlington remains at the center of Vermont’s Chittenden County, our largest metro area, this new development certainly has implications for the future of the state. Being as Weinberger has never before served in elected office, this begs the question, where will he take Burlington’s City Hall now?
Miro Weinberger has had quite a career so far. He is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and also holds a BA from Yale. He’s worked on the staff of two U.S. Senators, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Harris Wofford (D- PA), as well as for the Vermont Democratic Party, serving as Chittenden County Democratic Chair in 2004. During that time, Democrats picked up six seats in the Vermont Senate alone. However, unlike many career politicos, Weinberger has worked considerably in the private sector, having founded the housing development company, Hartland Group. He has also been involved with capital development and management at the Greyston Foundation and at the lakeside ECHO Center. To top that off, Miro has been a member of the Burlington Airport Commission since 2003. The young Mayor has raised literally tens of millions of dollars in revenue for his companies and those he has worked for, and it should be hoped that he will continue his pro-business record while in the Burlington’s highest office.
Miro clearly brings enthusiasm to the job of Mayor, as TNR saw Weinberger literally bounding down the outside steps of City Hall to a meeting on the lower level at 8:30 AM on his first full day. He may need that energy. As Miro himself noted in his inaugural address Monday, “Last September, when I entered the mayoral campaign, I noted that our great city faced a mood of anger and anxiety for our future.” The brand-new executive added, “The city is confronted by serious financial challenges, we have an immediate budget gap and a number of long term unfunded obligations and liabilities we can no longer afford to kick down the road…The cost of housing in Burlington is too high, and threatens to force the middle class out of our city.” He finished that night by stating his highest priority, “Perhaps most importantly, the paralyzing loss of trust between the mayor’s office, this council and the public must be repaired.” We may have hold you to that.
Weinberger is not a force to be underestimated. During the recent campaign, candidate Weinberger set a new historic record for both fundraising and spending on the City Mayor’s race, raising over $118,000 and spending $99,000 to win the race, $25,000 coming from out-of-state donors. Weinberger overcame a four way primary, which included State Senator Tim Ashe as an opponent. Weinberger has shown that to get the job done, he will utilize whatever resources necessary, having held a fundraising event in Washington D.C. when contributions had become tight, and enlisting the help of U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch and former Governor Howard Dean. Both moves were unprecedented for a local mayor’s race in Vermont.
Burlington may need significant chutzpah in the coming years ahead from its leadership. The City’s employee pension fund is under-funded by over $50 million according to most estimates, while the beleaguered Burlington Telcom may yet ultimately cost another $33 million, depending on the outcome of ongoing litigation with creditor Citibank. With a record of private sector fundraising, both profit and non-profit, Miro might bring what Burlington needs.
Concerns remain. Given some contradictory statements from the new mayor over the course of his campaign. Opponent Kurt Wright suggested that Burlington’s city owned electric utility might be sold to shore up city finances, and while Weinberger didn’t rule that possibility out, he did express that he felt the idea might be “half-baked.” He has described his experience as building “green projects”, working for “liberal Democrats” and has said he supports “social justice (and) social equity”, terms mostly used by more liberal and less economy friendly politicians.
More optimistically, Weinberger has stated that he looks forward to a more direct involvement with Burlington’s finances and credit rating and appears to be a possibility thinker, suggesting development on forty acres of Waterfront land owned by the city and additional development near the city’s Pine Street Barge Canal, both long elusive brown space. The mayor has pointed out, in fact, that he has restored such locations before. Unlike previous mayors, Weinberger does not feel the city is built out, and claims, “We must create new economic opportunity,” and, “As Vermonters, we know we must live within our means, and as Burlingtonians we have made it a commitment to increasingly growing those means.”
During the first weeks and even months of a new mayoral administration, the new executive is entitled to a honeymoon period, where his own agenda and style are laid out. A sunshine period, if you will. Miro Weinberger should be no exception. The new Mayor should keep in mind, however, that the voters of Burlington, and indeed Vermont, will be indeed be watching and hoping for a fresh start to turn to a more vibrant economic future. You earned your day in the sunshine, Mr. Mayor, let’s see what you do with it.