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Burlington city councilors debate reconsidering resolution on rights of houseless community

Burlington City Hall in early evening (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall in early evening (file)

The Burlington, Vermont City Council was scheduled to consider a resolution at last/Monday night’s meeting to recognize the rights of those without homes in the city. The move comes after weeks of debate over a homeless encampment on Sears Lane. But the debate was over parliamentary rules regarding the appropriateness of offering the resolution.

During Monday night’s City Council meeting a resolution was on the agenda “recognizing the rights of houseless community members.” It includes clauses calling for a delay of any further removal or destruction of the Sears Lane encampment and calls on the city administration to create a plan of action to support the unhoused community members living there beyond the 28-day emergency housing assistance provided by the state of Vermont.

During public comments the vast majority supported the proposal. Carol Layton is a resident of the encampment.

“We’re people. We’re trying to make a life. We actually have a community that cares about each other, that takes care of each other. And all you guys want to do is smack us back down. You’re destroying what we’ve built.”

City resident John Callow was among those who encouraged the council to reject the resolution.

“We can do better. This resolution does not appear to me to be a serious or appropriate public policy response to homelessness.”

When the resolution came up for debate South District Democrat Joan Shannon immediately called a point of order noting the resolution is a reconsideration of action taken by the council on October 25th that allowed the encampment to continue. She said they were being asked to vote on language they have already passed.

City attorney Daniel Richardson provided his analysis on the two measures.

“Both of these motions my analysis was that they are substantially the same question.”

Councilor Shannon said that analysis means her point of order is correct but Progressive City Council President Max Tracy disagreed.

“And so I don’t believe that Councilor Magee’s motion is in order.”

But Council President Tracy overruled, “I find it in order. The reason I find it in order is I find it to be substantially different. I disagree with the notion that this is in fact a continuation of the resolution.”

That set off an extended debate by councilors as Shannon appealed the ruling of Chair Tracy. Ward 5 Democrat Chip Mason seconded her appeal.

“I’ve not seen a chair overrule an opinion of the city attorney in my ten years on the council. The reason this matters I have people texting me who are listening to our debate and they are saying this is the same debate we just had two weeks ago. Two weeks later some people on the other side decided let’s make another run at it. We’ve never done that before and I fear it sets us down a dangerous path.”

Ward 3 Progressive Joe Magee defended offering the new resolution.

“We have not seen solutions that protect human life and we have not seen considerable changes made that would make me feel comfortable, or should make any of us feel comfortable, that we have solved the underlying issues that created the Sears Lane encampment in the first place.”

Burlington councilors voted 6 to 5 supporting the appeal. When Council President Tracy announced the result, one activist was displeased.

“The appeal carries and we will therefore not take up this item.”

Activist Lee Morrigan yells: “Shame on you. They are people and you don’t even have the respect to ...”

Chair Tracy tries to interject: “Lee, Lee will you please...”

But she continues, “...debate it. You’re not doing anything. These are real people but you don’t (bleep) care.”

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