Instant runoff likely in Burlington

John Briggs // Published March 1, 2009 in Burlington Free Press

Four Burlington mayoral candidates anticipate a victory party Tuesday night, but little evidence exists to buttress anyone’s claim to front-runner status.

The contenders: Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss, Democratic Councilor Andy Montroll, independent Dan Smith and Republican City Council President Kurt Wright. The Green Party’s James Simpson also is on the ballot but hasn’t participated in the many campaign forums, and none of the other candidates expects him to receive other than token votes.

Four strong candidates with subtle differences and obvious support make Tuesday’s winner anyone’s best guess even five months after the challengers began to surface. And, with no one expected to win more than 50 percent of the votes, the race will come down to who residents think would be second- or even third-best for the job.

“It’ll be an IRV finish, neck and neck between Kurt and Andy,” predicted Democratic city councilor Bill Keogh, Ward 5. He based his prediction on conversations with “a lot of people.”

“IRV” refers to the instant runoff voting system first used in 2006. Voters rank the candidates, and if their first choice is eliminated, their second choice becomes a vote for one of the remaining candidates. That computer-scanning of the ballots continues until one of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

Jane Knodell, a 14-year Progressive councilor from Ward 2 who is leaving the council, said she expects Mayor Kiss and Wright to be the top two vote-getters in the first IRV round.

She said Wright — vying to become only the city’s second Republican mayor since 1965 — would do well in the large wards of the New North End and add support across the city. “I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t be in the top two,” she said.

“I think it will go three rounds,” she said. “The more even it is on the first ballot, the more (likely it is) we could get surprising or unexpected results in the end.”

Long, clean race

The race began in early October when Montroll made clear his intentions to try to regain City Hall for the Democrats for the first time since Progressive Bernie Sanders upset Mayor Gordon Paquette by 10 votes in 1981. Smith and Wright soon joined the chase after Kiss announced re-election plans.

The difficulty for voters in choosing among them is apparent to Keogh.

“This campaign has been very, very good,” he said. “The city is lucky to have four good, willing candidates. They’ve all attended just about every single forum and debate to which they’ve been invited — sometimes twice in a night. They’ve been out front and as forthright as they can be with their views. This is the most respectful and informative campaign in Burlington in a long time.”

The four candidates agree that Burlington is, as Montroll says repeatedly, “a city we love to live in” — a pretty, civilized city in an enviable location. None of them contests the political sensibility that has transformed the city during the last 30 years from a faltering industrial town into one of the country’s most “livable” and tourist-beckoning cities. All vow to encourage business development.

Additionally, the challengers to Kiss haven’t generally disputed his contention that the city, under his leadership, is now on a firm financial footing. The financial reserve is solid, as is the city’s credit rating. And none of Kiss’ challengers has criticized him for avoiding a General Fund tax increase the last two years.

Kiss: Disengaged, or not

Kiss made his case for re-election unemotionally in a “My Turn” piece in last Sunday’s Free Press. “The city continues to thrive in many ways,” he wrote, “and we are well-positioned to weather the current economic situation. ... In these uncertain times, we need steady and proven leadership to keep us moving forward.”

Kiss highlights as successes of his administration the voter-approved plan to refurbish the waterfront Moran plant; new revenue streams from the local sales tax, and from fee-for service agreements with the University of Vermont and Champlain College; the sale of city land to the Intervale Foundation to guarantee sustainable agriculture there; and the recent voter approval of a tax increase and bond issue to repair city streets. “That,” he said of the streets, “will show up this summer.

“We have an effective team in place,” he said. “We’re building a sustainable future. Now is not the time to lose ground. All the accolades we get from around the country — Burlington deserves them.”

The challengers, however, argue that Kiss has been a listless chief executive — “disengaged,” in Wright’s view.

Smith to end ‘entrenchment’

Smith, the top fundraiser in the campaign and with the support of a number of young professionals unimpressed by the existing political establishment, has argued that despite Burlington’s virtues, its city-government engine is outmoded.

“The era of entrenchment,” he wrote in last Sunday’s Free Press, “must come to an end. We are too bogged down in politics as usual, and guided by old grudges and old commitments. “As Burlington faces its own challenges,” he said, “we cannot rely on a 20th-century playbook.”

His opponents, Smith said, have been content to tinker with the status-quo — “have had the chance to address these challenges and they have not. The pension shortfall exceeds our annual budget. Our schools are crumbling and our streets are full of potholes.”

Taxpayers, Smith said, are “tapped out,” and the city must “(do) everything possible to encourage investment in our city. ... The status quo is not good enough in these times.”

The son of a former Republican congressman, Smith points to his development background as general counsel and vice president of the nonprofit Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. as evidence that he understands “how to recruit (green) businesses to our city and help them grow here.” He also promises to update the city’s Web presence, to improve resident access to government and to cut costs.

Wright: Leadership and council diplomacy

Wright, a Republican, has run a campaign designed to reassure the city’s Progressives and Democrats that he would be a safe custodian of their social mores. He points to his election by his Democratic and Progressive colleagues as City Council president the past two years as evidence of his diplomatic skills.

His nonpartisan direction, Wright said, helped end the six-year “disarray” and complete the rewrite of the zoning ordinance, led the council effort to trim the school district’s massive borrowing plan and helped the council find a way to keep the city’s two senior centers open for another year.

“As mayor,” he wrote for the Free Press, “I will provide the leadership that has been missing on issue after issue” — moving the Southern Connector along; creating an updated plan for the entire waterfront; creating more senior housing and encouraging the colleges to house more students on campus to free neighborhood houses for nonstudents. Those issues and “making government more open and transparent and delivering services as efficiently as possible,” he wrote, “will be among the priorities of a Wright administration.”

With at least five new city councilors to take office in April and “the loss of a half-century of experience on the council,” Wright said, “we need a mayor who can work together with the new council. I think that’s the biggest difference in this race.”

Montroll: Change the pension system

Montroll, a former City Council president and current Board of Finance member, promises to use his experience to help Burlington grow and expand while holding fast to the city’s values.

His candidacy may have been helped by a challenge last month by the mayor’s chief administrative officer, Jonathan Leopold. Leopold said Montroll was guilty of a conflict of interest for doing legal work for the White River Junction-based telecommunications company Valley Net while simultaneously sitting on the Board of Finance with access to Burlington Telecom’s confidential marketing strategies. He said Montroll hadn’t disclosed his work for Valley Net.

Montroll responded furiously. He had disclosed the relationship nearly a year ago to Leopold, he said. Leopold acknowledged that conversation but said he hadn’t understood Montroll’s work for Valley Net would be “ongoing.”

Knodell, the outgoing Progressive city councilor from Ward 2, said the public argument helped Montroll. It came across to the public, she said, as, “there they (the Progressives) go, beating up on people again.”

Kiss, Montroll wrote in his “My Turn” piece in the Free Press, hasn’t been up to the job of mayor: “I do not feel the current administration has provided the leadership necessary to create and maintain sound financial policies for our city.”

Montroll has taken perhaps the boldest position of the candidates and courted union opposition by targeting one portion of the city’s finances — the pension system.

He has said the current “defined benefit” Social Security-like pension plan is unaffordable in the long run. New employees, he argues, should have a 401(k)-like plan.

“We cannot rely on the stock market to balance our city’s budget,” he said, noting that the city must make up a $60 million underfunding of the pension fund. “We cannot continue to take that risk and ask the taxpayers to take that risk with us. ... The status-quo,” he said, “is simply unacceptable.”

The other candidates have dismissed Montroll’s approach to the pension, arguing that it wouldn’t relieve the city of its pension obligation to current employees. And a conversion of the pension to a 401(k), they say, would make it hard to attract and retain good employees.

“Andy’s plan,” Kiss said, “is more pandering to voters and their concerns than it is to meet their needs.”