So Long, Leopold
Jonathan Leopold is resigning as Burlington’s chief administrative officer. But that doesn’t mean the powerful honcho’s troubles are over.
Hanging over Leopold’s head are a citizen lawsuit that seeks repayment of $17 million in city funds loaned to Burlington Telecom and an ongoing criminal investigation into the city’s failure to pay back the loan within 60 days — a violation of its state license.
Another wrinkle: The city isn’t committing to defending Leopold in those legal proceedings after his scheduled departure on July 1. Asked whether the city’s insurer will continue to pay for Leopold’s legal defense in the Burlington Telecom civil case, or defend him in the event he is charged criminally, a spokesman for Mayor Bob Kiss wouldn’t say.
“As you know, Jonathan will be leaving as of July 1, about 10 weeks from now,” mayoral assistant Joe Reinert tells Fair Game. “In general, it’s premature to say anything related to the status of either of these issues as they may stand on July 1.”
Maybe Kiss expects everything will be wrapped up by the time Leopold splits?
After resisting numerous calls for his ouster as a result of the BT fiasco, Leopold announced his resignation last week on his terms. He attributed it to “serious health problems” resulting from a 2007 car accident.
First hired when Bernie Sanders was mayor, Leopold earned a reputation as a shrewd money manager during a career that spanned three decades. Unfortunately for him, Leopold is more likely to be remembered for the big screwup at the end of his tenure and how it weakened the city’s financial position.
Burlingtonians hoping for Leopold’s mea culpa got something, but not much, in his resignation letter last week. After he had finished rattling off his financial accomplishments, Leopold conceded: “I regret the difficulties the city has faced as a result of the BT controversy, and I hope the city is able to resolve these issues. In hindsight, I believe that we could have made a more complete disclosure of the violation of Condition 60 when we first learned of it in November 2008. This has resulted in unfortunate division within the city.
“I believe it is time for Burlington to come together and move forward. I do not want my continued role as chief administrative officer to polarize the city further or hinder progress in addressing the challenges of the future.”
Left unsaid in the CAO’s letter: Kiss’ chances of reelection are slim. And when the Prog mayor goes, Leopold would likely be out of a job, too.
To me, it always seemed like Vermont and Wisconsin were cut from the same cheesecloth — blue states known for their liberal politics, dairy cows and quality cheddar. In fact, Madison and Burlington are almost mirror images of each other. Both are lakeside college towns that serve as laboratories for left-leaning social policies.
Last week, though, politicians from the two states were showing their differences.
The starkest contrast came last Thursday, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sat next to Gov. Peter Shumlin at the witness table before Congressman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Shumlin, a silver-tongued liberal, was invited by the committee’s ranking Democrat to serve as counterweight to Walker, the now-notorious Republican union buster. The topic was “State and Municipal Debt: Tough Choices Ahead.” Shumlin sought to draw a sharp line in the sand between the choices he’s making and the path Walker has followed.
In his opening remarks, Shumlin proclaimed, “I do not believe that those to blame for our current financial troubles are our law enforcement officers, firefighters and other state employees whose services we take for granted. The notion that a state trooper making a middle-class living with health care benefits for her family, or a snowplow driver who works long hours in dangerous conditions and makes a decent but modest wage, is responsible for this problem is simply false.”
Shumlin said that he’s asked “everyone to sacrifice” in Vermont — including public-employee unions — but neglected to mention that he is not asking wealthy Vermonters to pony up more to help close the state’s $176 million deficit.
Nonetheless, the gov boasted that Vermont is evidence of what states can do when they “put aside partisan differences” and “tone down” the rhetoric.
The evening before Shumlin’s big day, Republicans assembled at the Burlington Hilton for their annual fundraising dinner and turned up the rhetoric — albeit in a super-polite, Vermont sort of way. The fundraiser’s headliner was Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsinite who helped get Walker elected. Earlier in the day, several dozen union demonstrators marched from Church Street to the hotel to protest Priebus’ appearance and his role in undoing collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.
Addressing the GOP faithful, Priebus mocked the Vermont union protesters, saying, “In Wisconsin, we’re used to protests of, you know, 70,000. I call that a coffee klatch across the street.”
There is one way, however, that Priebus hopes Wisconsin and Vermont prove identical: their ability to topple liberal U.S. senators.
“You’ve got a guy here by the name of Bernie Sanders that’s a whole lot like a guy named Russ Feingold, who was defeated by somebody named Ron Johnson from Wisconsin,” Priebus said to huge applause. “You can do it here. Just like Russ Feingold got beat in Wisconsin, Bernie Sanders can get beat [in Vermont.]”
Burlington city councilors have tried — and failed — twice to pass an ordinance to get cigarette smoking off the Church Street Marketplace.
Will the third time prove to be the charm?
That’s the hope of six councilors who introduced a resolution last week that would snuff out smoking across a wide swath of downtown. The group is led by Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5), chair of the committee that will shape the ordinance proposal. She’s also a possible mayoral candidate for next year.
Shannon says a smoking ban is about economics and public health — not about ridding the Marketplace of unsavory characters. Since 85 percent of Chittenden County residents don’t smoke, she figures an outdoor smoking ban would lure more shoppers to Church Street. And since the surgeon general says that no amount of secondhand smoke is safe — the EPA classifies cigarette smoke as a known human carcinogen — Shannon and others think it’s good policy to expand Burlington’s smoking ban, from bars and restaurants to the great outdoors.
The last attempt to make the Marketplace smoke free went down in flames when merchants revolted over concerns about losing business — particularly from puffing Canadians. A survey by the Church Street Marketplace Commission last year showed that more than half of the 100 or so merchants opposed the smoking ban.
What’s changed since then? Not much beyond some less-than-convincing “anecdotal” evidence.
The Marketplace Commission is touting an informal poll it conducted of Québecois shoppers on Church Street as evidence that Canadians wouldn’t bolt if smoking were banned. Using French-speaking college students as interviewers, commission chairman Jeff Nick says the commission approached “more than 100 visitors” and found “general support” for the ban.
For her part, Shannon observes: “You used to see a lot more strollers on Church Street. People with kids have a big reaction to the amount of smoke in the downtown area.”
What the Marketplace commission and city officials haven’t done — since the last attempt to prohibit outdoor smoking — is solicit more input from merchants or, apparently, from American visitors. Plus, while the health risks associated with indoor secondhand smoke are clear, the science on the hazards of outdoor smoke is far from settled.
Also unsettled is how far the no-smoking zone would extend — and how smoke-free the Marketplace would actually be. Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1), a cosponsor of the proposed ban, envisions the borders extending from Pearl Street to Main Street, and from South Winooski Avenue all the way to the waterfront. New this time around: The ordinance would provide for designated smoking areas within the no-smoking zone. Adrian envisions indoor smoking rooms like the kind you see in airports.
More significantly, to help sell the idea to merchants, the proposal would let cafés with outdoor seating simply “opt out” of the smoking ban. And Shannon, for one, expects that a lot of them would.
So, wouldn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of a “smoke-free” downtown?
“I think what we’re looking for here is an improvement,” Shannon says. “We all have to accept the fact that what we’re coming up with here won’t be a perfect solution.”
Up in Smoke
Speaking of smoking —it is 4/20, after all — here’s an update on pot-related legislation in the Statehouse.
The medical marijuana dispensary bill passed in the state senate last week by a vote of 25 to 4. As passed, S.17 would permit nonprofit providers, overseen by state authorities, to grow and dispense marijuana from two locations to qualifying patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other chronic conditions. Right now, patients on the registry have the choice of growing their own, or buying it on the black market if they’re unable to cultivate a crop.
The bill now heads to the House and, if passed, on to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who cosponsored a similar bill last year as a state senator. But don’t expect Vermont to become Amsterdam West. The marijuana registry has strict criteria for getting in — this ain’t California, where a case of athlete’s foot is enough to get you a legal ounce of kind bud — and the dispensaries will keep the sativa under heavy security.
Another marijuana-themed bill — to decriminalize some pot possession and make the penalty a civil offense, like a traffic ticket — never got out of the gates. The tripartisan legislation would have imposed a civil fine of $150 on anyone 21 or older possessing an ounce or less of pot. Shumlin supports decriminalization as a cost-saving measure that would ease the obligation to prosecute and imprison low-level dealers and tokers.
The bill got marooned in the House Committee on Judiciary without so much as a hearing. Talk about a buzz kill. A few days sooner and H.427 could have been H.420, man!