The joke around Burlington city hall is that while Bob Kiss may not have been an entirely successful mayor, he’d be perfect in the role of tribal elder. Kiss certainly looks the part. Thinning hair and craggy features top a tall, trim frame that remains unbowed despite political burdens that have weighed heavily throughout his second three-year term.
Kiss, who opted not to seek a third term, has also been a target of sometimes-venomous personal attacks. Seldom, though, has he spoken out in self-defense, and many old allies have remained silent or joined the chorus of his critics. In their view, Kiss’ handling of the Burlington Telecom debacle is indefensible.
As he prepares to end his turbulent tenure, Kiss doesn’t seem fazed by any of this. He has an unflappable quality that would probably be described as cool if he weren’t so old-world gentlemanly. He’s polite to the point of being self-effacing — which may be more of a weakness than a strength for someone in his line of work.
But there’s no mistaking his strength of character. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam era and a longtime antipoverty activist, Kiss has hewed to values that may be mainstream in Burlington but would be considered extremist in many parts of the country.
The Queen City’s 35th mayor, who has lived in Burlington for 41 years, was interviewed in his third-floor corner office in city hall — just weeks before Democratic Mayor-elect Miro Weinberger moves in.
SEVEN DAYS: You’re mayor until April 2. You must be looking ahead to that date with a mixture of emotions — relief, for one, probably.
BOB KISS: I’ve had a lot of satisfaction from being mayor. From the outside looking in, it might seem like “Oh, my God!” but it’s really not been that way. I thought I could have run for a third term and won, because we’ve accomplished a lot in the past six years. But this is still a good time for me to stop being mayor. I’ll be 65 on April 1, so there’s a sense of wanting to do something different.
SD: You really think you would have won a third term? With all the criticism of the way you handled Burlington Telecom? With the Republican and Democratic mayoral candidates both attacking your record?
BK: It comes down to overall performance. Beyond BT there’s a lot that’s been positive. It’s a fact that people elsewhere in this country want to be like us. Our unemployment rate has ranged between 3 and 5 percent; in many cities it’s 13 percent.
That kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident. It has to do with the policies that are adopted, which in our case for the past 30 years have been about putting people first.
Much of what was said about me was campaign rhetoric. Candidates feel they must say it to define themselves as distinct from the current mayor. When people think carefully about it later on, they’ll see that a lot of what was said wasn’t true.
If I had run, I could have presented a whole different picture during the debates. People would have seen that there are real success stories. I would have given the message of an effective and efficient government, of having built infrastructure that encourages people in both their professional and personal lives to choose Burlington.
SD: Can you be specific about a few accomplishments of your term?
BK: There’s the 179 acres of land in the Intervale that’s been set aside for solely agricultural uses. I got that through the city council [on an 8-6 vote in 2006]. There hasn’t been an increase in taxes for the general fund in the past six years, and there’s been growth in the grand list. A lot of cities saw their grand lists shrink during the recession.
Burlington Telecom, by the way, was a casualty, in some ways, of the Great Recession because of not being able to refinance it when we wanted to.
SD: For what it’s worth, I think your greatest accomplishment was when you told police last November not to arrest an Occupy protester at a moment when it looked like there was going to be a riot. Angry demonstrators had confronted police who were preventing them from reentering City Hall Park following a shooting death in the encampment.
BK: That was a difficult moment. I wanted to make it clear this wasn’t an us-versus-them confrontation, that we were actually all in it together. Also, you can’t be afraid of the people you serve. It was an anomaly for me to ask the police to release someone, but it was the right thing to do in order to defuse the heat. It was also good that the Unitarian Church made itself available to Occupy as a sort of relief valve.
SD: Were there surprises you encountered as mayor? It was a surprise to many people that you were elected in the first place.
BK: I didn’t have on my list of ambitions being mayor of Burlington. But I did have six years in the [Vermont] House before I ran for mayor [in 2006], and some of that same experience is brought to the job of being mayor. People expect you to listen and to respond.
You know that I was the head of the Progressive committee searching for a candidate, which turned out to be me because others were not at a time in their lives when they could run. My own personal life was more matched up with that moment.
I know a lot more people in Burlington than is generally thought. I had a personal political base that was broader than just from running for the House.
SD: Are you going to run for the state Senate? If so, will you run in the Democratic primary, since that may be the only realistic route to winning?
BK: Yes, I probably will run, but not as a Democrat. I don’t buy that idea about needing to run in the Democratic primary. I don’t particularly buy that whole [Democrat-Progressive] fusion thing, either.
I’m not a Democrat. I’ll run as an independent.
SD: You won’t run as a Progressive? You don’t think you could get the party’s support?
BK: It’s important to have independent voices in the Senate. And I think I’d be able to bring something important to the whole Burlington area.
SD: It must be painful to have the Progressive Party turn away so totally from you. Maybe on a personal level, too, because friends — former friends — are involved.
BK: Just because you’re in a political party doesn’t mean you’re close personal friends with people in that party. I have always been an independent voice within the Progressive community. I would never ask people to march in lockstep to some purity platform.
I’ve stood for certain priorities and values. I haven’t changed in that respect. I don’t have anything I feel I need to apologize for.
SD: Let’s talk about an unavoidable subject: Burlington Telecom. It was your biggest failure, right?
BK: Burlington Telecom may be the most powerful fiber-to-the-home system in the world. It’s a driving force for economic development. It has massive capacity. If we didn’t have Burlington Telecom, we wouldn’t have fiber-to-the-home. We would have only the much weaker system of Comcast.
You can’t be faint of heart about BT. Its strengths as well as its problems is a discussion I’m willing to have.
SD: Don’t you have regrets over the way the problems were handled?
BK: I wish we’d been able to finance it earlier, to have gotten at the problems earlier. It did take a while to see where the business plan was taking us. And then the Great Recession hit.
SD: But you didn’t tell the state about $17 million in borrowing as you were supposed to have done.
BK: We were already in a process with the public service department and [Public Service] Board. We provided information as it was needed. At the same time, BT was operating in a fiercely competitive market. There were entrepreneurial factors in play as to how much you should reveal in public about BT’s finances.
SD: Maybe it’s the case that the city should never have gotten into the telecom business to start with. You say it’s a fiercely competitive market, and Burlington city government didn’t have the expertise to enter it effectively, right?
BK: About 50 cities across the country have done this and have done it successfully.
SD: Yes, but there are also cities that have failed at running a telecom enterprise.
BK: True, but it was still something worthwhile for Burlington to have done. BT is going to be an important economic driver in our future.
SD: Maybe it should have been a different model — a public-private partnership, for example.
BK: It eventually could have worked as a city-owned telecom. There are other models that work and don’t work.
Timing was vital for BT. In a different time frame we might have gotten [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] funds for it. Millions and millions of dollars did flow into Vermont from that source, and it could have opened up a whole new set of possibilities for BT.
SD: What about the $17 million that was improperly used?
BK: Those claims are misconstrued. Some of it was based on not understanding what was involved, some of it was about politics. Implementing policies in government is different from being engaged in party politics. Some responses to issues [involving BT] have been too shallow because of politics.
Burlington Telecom is of critical importance to this city’s future. You can’t back away just because some issues are difficult. Take the Lockheed Martin initiative. That was an extraordinary opportunity for us to work with a company that’s part of the defense industry but that’s bringing new concepts to climate action. Lockheed could have brought us a whole coterie of experts who could have helped us find solutions we couldn’t find without them.
It could still have been a swords-into-ploughshares outcome. It was short-sighted to reject that proposal. It wasn’t a constructive way to build a future.
Remember, Eisenhower said, “Watch out for the military-industrial complex.” He didn’t say there shouldn’t be a military-industrial complex.
SD: What do you think of Miro Weinberger’s agenda for Burlington?
BK: If Miro pursues government on the same priorities as the past 30 years, we’ll continue to be well served. He’ll have to look at the proposal I made for a 2¢ tax increase to close a $750,000 gap in the budget. I don’t think he’ll find that there’s excess in the city government system. We have 100 police officers, so maybe Miro will say he’s only willing to support 85. But that would come at a price to the public.
I think it’s important that all seven ballot items on Town Meeting Day were approved, including the capital budget for the city and BED, the school tax increase and the TIF [tax increment financing] plan that will make it easier to redevelop parts of downtown. That indicates to me that people feel we’re moving in the right direction.
SD: Miro’s also got to deal with a serious pension problem.
BK: The pension is at 73 percent funding. Our investments are doing much better, so the problem is easing. The unions have also made changes that have helped the pension system.
We’d like it to be 90 percent funded, but 73 percent puts us in the ballpark. We’re paying our part of it year by year. It’s important we preserve the system as a defined benefit, because it gives people a reason to have a career in city government.
SD: Who did you vote for in the mayor’s race?
BK: I voted for Wanda [Hines]. I’ve worked with her for a long time and I respect her values.
SD: Some people with similar values say she wasn’t ready to be mayor, that she didn’t have the necessary background on city issues.
BK: Some people grow into the jobs they’re elected for. In this race Wanda was the candidate I voted for because of her capacity for leadership and her values.
SD: What advice would you give the incoming mayor?
BK: You have to be patient. You should not make promises that you can’t keep. You have to be respectful of the people you work with. Burlington has great resources; it’s not the mayor alone who runs the city.
You also have to be good with people on a personal level. You have a lot of contact with the public on that basis.
SD: Looking back, do you perhaps agree with those who say that Bob Kiss had good values and is a decent man but he’s not a good politician? You weren’t nearly as visible as were Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle. They were consistently out in public through press conferences.
BK: I wasn’t trying to follow the Sanders model. Leadership expresses itself in different ways, and I think I have provided leadership that has produced a lot of accomplishments. You don’t necessarily need to do it through press conferences and bold language.
On the other hand, I recognize that more press conferences would not have been a bad thing. I can accept that.
SD: How do you think historians will view your six years as mayor?
BK: Once we resolve BT, I think the verdict will be positive. They’ll remember things like the 179 acres that will have made a big difference in local sustainability.
SD: Do you think you were treated fairly by the media? By the Burlington Free Press? By Seven Days?
BK: I didn’t have an illusion of the Gannett-owned Free Press as ever being an ally. The fact that candidates endorsed by the Free Press almost always lose says something about the paper’s relationship [with Burlingtonians]. I don’t think the Free Press’ reporting [on my administration] has been balanced. Seven Days has been pretty fair. It doesn’t always come at stories with a long or deep view, but I think people learn to read what the media says with a certain critical awareness.