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Burlington City Council agenda includes redistricting and public hearing on charter change proposal

Burlington City Hall
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall (file)

The Burlington, Vermont City Council met Monday evening. Among the items on the agenda was a report from the city’s Ad Hoc committee on redistricting.

Burlington currently has eight wards and four districts represented by one councilor. Each district is composed of two wards.

Last June the council passed a resolution creating an ad hoc redistricting committee. It was charged with looking at the current district map, gathering opinions about the number of councilors per ward or district, and considering ward and district configuration.

City Attorney Daniel Richardson noted that committee report resulted in three themes.

“The first theme that emerged was that Ward 8 is not working in its current configuration," Richardson said. "The second theme was that residents were not in favor of the district system. The third is that the ward configuration as we go into redistricting must preserve neighborhoods.”

Ad Hoc committee member Lea Terhune summarized the results of surveys taken at each meeting that formulated the basis for the redistricting report.

“The majority wanted us to eliminate Ward 8 as a student ward. But eight wards was the top choice in number of wards," Terhune said. "The majority of residents favored two reps in each ward. They wanted to eliminate districts and they said no to at-large councilors.”

The City Council also held a second public hearing regarding a Town Meeting Day ballot question that would authorize a change in city charter language regarding sex workers. City Attorney Richardson explained the proposed change.

“It’s a straight repeal of the city’s authority to regulate the term prostitution, houses of ill fame and disorderly houses," Richardson said. "However this would not affect the state statutes that do regulate and do criminalize the types of activities that we commonly either refer to as prostitution or sex work.”

Comments during the public hearing were mixed. Savannah Sly noted that a number of human rights organizations including Amnesty International, the ACLU and the World Health Organization support decriminalization of sex work.

“Decriminalizing sex work would enable people like me to access emergency services and legal recourse while existing crimes like sex trafficking, child abuse, assault and rape would rightly remain punishable offenses," said Sly. "This charter change is a step forward in enabling people in the sex trade to reach out for help when we want and need it.”

Massachusetts-based Amirah, Inc. provides exit and after care services to women leaving the commercial sex trade in New England. CEO Stephanie Clark warned councilors that if sex work is decriminalized in Burlington it will not improve sex workers’ lives.

“To date 61 percent of the women we have served in our residential program were sold for sex in Vermont during their time in the sex trade. We’ve learned through the stories of those who were in the commercial sex trade in Vermont that it’s particularly active in Burlington and is directly connected to gang activity," Clark warned. "Should the decriminalization of the sex trade happen you are guaranteed an increase in violence and an increase in the most marginalized here in Vermont continuing to be exploited and trafficked. It will only increase the demand for their bodies, increase the violence that can be done against them and support the buyers who often come from the most privilege. If your goal is safety for those in the sex trade this will not help.”

Councilors voted 11 to 1 to place the charter change question on the March 1st Town Meeting Day Ballot.

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