Queen City Kerfuffle
He’s been the invisible candidate in Burlington’s mayoral contest — until now.
Last week Jonathan Leopold, who serves as the city’s chief administrative officer and is seen by Mayor Bob Kiss critics as the shadow mayor, raised concerns in a newspaper article that mayoral challenger and Democratic City Councilor Andy Montroll had a potential conflict of interest.
The conflict? Montroll sits on the city’s board of finance and is privy to inside information about Burlington Telecom. Meanwhile, Montroll is the legal counsel for ValleyNet, a telecom service provider based in White River Junction. ValleyNet provides telecom services for ECFiber, a consortium of 22 towns in central and eastern Vermont. ValleyNet is run by Tim Nulty, BT’s first general manager, who left after a run-in with city administrators over BT’s future. He wanted to expand beyond the city’s borders; Kiss didn’t.
None of the finance board members knew of Montroll’s work for ValleyNet until a week ago, when rumors first surfaced, including a tip to “Fair Game.” By Friday, it was a feature story in the Burlington Free Press and an instant issue in the mayoral campaign. The story, though, was less about Montroll’s possible conflict of interest than whether Leopold was trying to influence the outcome of the race.
“He’s the chief elections officer of the city, and to step into the middle of a mayor’s race is very troubling,” said Montroll.
Leopold tells “Fair Game” that his comments were in response to a reporter’s question about Montroll’s role with ValleyNet, and the candidate’s claims that the city was losing out on millions by not expanding into other communities.
“I felt I had to respond to what he was saying, because it’s not true. Then, I was asked about whether I thought there was a conflict,” said Leopold. “The last thing I wanted to do was to get into the mayor’s race, as I don’t think it’s very helpful to the mayor.”
City ordinances exist that govern conflicts of interest, and being an attorney for a possible competitor clearly qualifies as a definite no-no.
Montroll knows the rules, he said, and believes he is not in violation. Plus, he said he spoke to Leopold last spring about his work with ValleyNet, and the CAO did not indicate there was a problem. He believed that discussion alone was sufficient.
However, the finance board is composed of Kiss, Leopold, City Councilor and Sen. Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3) and City Council President Kurt Wright, who happens to be the GOP mayoral candidate. Wright told “Fair Game” that Montroll should have brought the issue to the city attorney or the full panel. As for Leopold, he says the CAO should have broached the issue with Montroll face to face instead of doing it through the newspaper.
Kiss said the whole issue is a “misunderstanding” that he hopes will be settled at this week’s board of finance meeting, as Seven Days goes to press.
If Leopold’s actions were as political as Montroll charges, the end result may actually work to Kiss’ advantage.
Gov. Jim Douglas used this approach — attack a weaker opponent as a way to erode the stronger opponent’s votes — to great effect in the November elections.
In the waning days of the governor’s race, Douglas stepped up attacks against Independent Anthony Pollina rather than Democrat Gaye Symington. That made it appear as if Pollina was a real threat. It worked. Pollina eroded Symington’s leads in the polls, and both candidates remained in the low 20s as Douglas waltzed to reelection.
No one said politics was all handshakes and kissing babies. To win, ya gotta score points — an aspect that seems lost on those challenging the gentle, quiet Kiss.
War of the Wards — Progressive ranks on the city council have been thinning in recent years. At the moment, there are just three members on the Burlington body: Ashe and Clarence Davis in Ward 3 and Jane Knodell in Ward 2. Ashe and Knodell are stepping down this March, and the Progs running to replace them face strong challenges from Democrats.
The Prog seeking Ashe’s seat is Marrisa Caldwell, a longtime school board member and former executive director of the Progressive Party. She also ran Kiss’ successful 2003 campaign. Caldwell is running against Democrat David Cain and Steve Ekberg of the Green Party.
Ashe, who ran a successful fusion campaign as a Progressive-Democrat in last fall’s state senate race, is backing Caldwell and serves as her treasurer — a move based on her support of his previous campaigns.
“It’s not a negative statement about Dave — he’s a nice guy, and it’s my hope he has a future in Burlington politics to bring progressive ideals forward,” said Ashe.
Cain floated the idea of running as a Democrat-Progressive, but at the city-council level, it violates Prog party rules. That hasn’t deterred Cain from running a fusion-esque campaign, however.
“I believe in the Progressive ideals and the Democratic ideals,” said Cain, whose grandfather Francis Cain was mayor in the 1950s and 1960s. He is worried that Burlington’s social programs will end up being casualties of the recession.
As a school board member Caldwell has led the fight for livable wages for employees, but also voted against large spending increases and bonding proposals.
“We need to keep the city on the right track, and we should not balance the budget on the backs of the workers or low-income people,” said Caldwell, who is also reaching out to Dems and Independents in her ward. “We can make sure that happens in a fiscally prudent way.”
Running in Ward 2 is Progressive Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, a union organizer with the Vermont-NEA and former director of the Peace & Justice Center’s Livable Wage Campaign. Also running are Democrat Nicole Pelletier and Gregory Knops of the Green Party.
Pelletier is a newcomer to politics, and ran at the urging of Ward 1 City Councilor Ed Adrian. She is most concerned about development and opposes the recent sale of the Ethan Allen Club to Champlain College and its expansion plans.
“We do need some young, fresh energy on the council,” said Pelletier, who works part-time as a buyer for a Stowe clothier.
Mulvaney-Stanak has never run for political office, either, though she did work on Democrat Scudder Parker’s 2006 run for governor and was one of two candidates in line to take the legislative seat Kiss vacated after being elected mayor.
“I think the perspective I can bring to the council is that as we grow and attract new people to the city, we need to be sure that we can meet the basic needs of the people who have been here,” said Mulvaney-Stanak.
This working-class perspective is important on the council, Ashe notes.
“The city council is on the verge of becoming a very cautious, conservative and, in some ways, regressive council,” said Ashe, who believes city Democrats are more conservative than their statewide counterparts. “So I’m happy to see there are candidates who are willing to carry on the Progressive legacy.”
Perverse Politics — Gov. Jim Douglas last week said it was “perverse” for people to be paying so much attention to the 2010 gubernatorial race.
The guv has a point. He’s barely had time to break in a new pair of ribbon-cutting scissors or to finish giving cushy state jobs to former campaign workers. Sheesh.
Douglas told VPR’s John Dillon last week, “I know we have brief terms here, but to have at least one announced candidate for governor before the term began, I think most Vermonters view as perverse, frankly.”
In other words, you’re supposed to wait until after Douglas gets his first few hundred grand in the bank. Nancy Remsen at the Burlington Free Press did a primo job showing that Douglas usually starts raising money for his next campaign within two months after an election. Ahem.
Douglas’ “perverse” comment struck a chord with former lieutenant governor and current Chittenden County Senator Doug Racine. Racine is one of two Dems who have expressed interest in the state’s top job. The other is Secretary of State Deb Markowitz.
“I think the use of the word ‘perverse’ is over the top — even for Jim Douglas,” Racine told “Fair Game.”
Top gubernatorial aide Dennise Casey — who also ran Douglas’ last two campaigns — told the Freeps that instead of the 2010 elections, Racine should spend more time focusing on the problems of struggling families.
“If [Douglas] was in the building long enough, he’d know that we are very hard at work,” Racine noted, criticizing the guv’s use of Casey, who is on the state payroll, to mount a political attack.
“Fair Game” readers will recall Casey is the aide who used her state ID badge to access state property after hours for several months while running the guv’s campaign. She was technically on leave from her state job.
As Douglas was calling Racine’s early exploration “perverse,” he used the bully pulpit to tout MassMutual’s LifeBridge program, a free life insurance plan for low-income folks. It costs nothing to sign up — if you meet income and health requirements. Your kids get $50,000 in the event you die, and the money is set into a trust. They have until age 35 to spend the money toward education.
Why give a free plug for a private insurance firm, even if it is a laudable program? The firm set aside nearly $1 billion for this and other charitable endeavors. Think they could spare some coin and take out some newspaper ads, eh?
Turns out MassMutual gave in-kind contributions to the Douglas campaign last fall, according to campaign finance reports. They spent $1000 on either side of the November 4 election — on November 3 and November 6. It doesn’t say what the guv got for $2000.
MassMutual, on the other hand, got a gubernatorial endorsement and a press release inked on state stationery. Not a bad trade-off.
So, who’s in campaign mode?
S.O.S! — With Secretary of State Markowitz considering a gubernatorial bid, several folks are eyeing her office.
As “Fair Game” noted two weeks ago, former Chittenden County Senator Jim Condos, a Democrat, is considering a run, as is former Windsor County Senator Matt Dunne.
Now, a Republican has stepped up who must not have received the Douglas memo on political perversion — Williston Selectman Chris Roy.
Roy, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin, is a Barre native. He has also served on the Vermont Environmental Board and the Vermont Advisory Commission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Roy said his background of municipal, legal and community service is a good fit for the post, which oversees everything from elections and state archives to business incorporations and the regulation of hairdressers, not to mention dozens of other professions.
So far, the response has been great, he said.
“In the past, you get someone who jumps in very late and focuses exclusively on campaign finance,” said Roy. “Really, the one thing that ties all the pieces together is, the job is really one that advances good goverment.”
Media Notes — Last week, we listed some of the top awards that Vermont’s newspapers took home from the New England Press Association.
We missed a big one, however: This year’s NEPA Rookie of the Year was the Bennington Banner’s John Waller.
It’s a little ironic considering his paper’s corporate owner — New England Newspapers, a division of MediaNews Group — announced the week before he won that all staffers would have to take a weeklong unpaid furlough as a cost-cutting measure.
Waller to corporate: You’re welcome.
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