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Burlington City Council reviews potential zoning changes and uses for opioid settlement funds

Burlington City Hall
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall

The Burlington, Vermont City Council had few items on its agenda this week. The discussions included opioid settlement funds and neighborhood code recommendations.

The council began its deliberative agenda with a presentation on Neighborhood Code recommendations. It is the third of the major zoning amendments that are part of the 2021 10-point action housing plan. Ward 5 Democrat Ben Traverse says the Neighborhood Code will be critical to help the city address its housing crisis.

“We are still in the midst, very much so, of a housing crisis and time is of the essence. I do think that the neighborhood code perhaps even more than the South End Innovation District, even more than our removal of minimum parking requirements, even more than our attempts to address Short Term Rentals, is really perhaps the most comprehensive way the city can further address our ongoing housing crisis.”

Councilors voted to accept the report and place it on file.

Central District Progressive Melo Grant requested that an update on the city’s initial receipt of opioid settlement money be moved to the deliberative agenda for a more in-depth discussion.

“Anything that is in reference to what the city is doing to help combat substance abuse disorder in the city we need to be talking about it as a council because we just, quite frankly, have not been doing that.”

Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger said the settlement funds are new and significant resources to help fight the opioid crisis. He told councilors that the city has so far received $220,651 in settlement funds and expects an additional $182,598 in the 2024 fiscal year. The mayor asked that $75,000 be committed to Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.

“This is the organization that has gotten some media attention for the services that they’ve added here in downtown Burlington over the last year that have succeeded in getting into treatment approximately 150 new individuals that were not previously receiving treatment. They’re working very hard in the justice involved community. We have made two prior significant appropriations to VCJR. This would be the third substantial investment to this agency which is really one of the few bright spots in our current opioid crisis response, drug crisis response.”

Ward 3 Progressive Joe Magee said the council talks about harm reduction yet the opioid epidemic is growing and overdose related calls this year are already higher than all of 2022. Magee would like to see more substantive action at the state level.

“VCJR is one of the most innovative things that we have going on right now and it’s shown a lot of promise, so I’m grateful for that work. We’re standing at a fork in the road so a direct plea to our state representatives, our state senators and to the governor that they do everything necessary to come back to Montpelier in January and pass H.71, that bill that would authorize overdose prevention centers here in Vermont.”

A resolution to authorize moving opioid settlement funds to an assigned fund balance labeled “opioid money” and earmark $75,000 to Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform passed unanimously.

As councilors offered comments on General City affairs, South District Democrat Joan Shannon referred to their last meeting on August 14th. During a charged public comment session, former city councilor Rachel Siegel stood up and took the mic away from Todd LaCroix, who was expressing an opposing view. The council has come under criticism for not responding to what some have called a physical assault on the First Amendment.

“The meeting had certain elements of physicality to me in that people rose up, they literally rose up. One member of the public felt entitled to walk up to the person speaking and take the microphone. We didn’t feel comfortable in this room. We should never feel that way again. We need to not feel intimidated. We’ve always been really lenient and kind of let people talk about anything under the sun. That is not the requirement of the law. The requirement of public forum is that people are able to address our agenda items at this meeting.”

Ward 1 Progressive Zoraya Hightower felt the report that propelled the chaotic situation was flawed and the anger expressed during the meeting was justified but restricting someone’s speech was not.

“We published a bad report and then even though the report was somewhat clear at the end, if you read it very carefully, a lot of people misread that or talked about it in a way that was problematic and the anger was justified. I do think we owe Todd an apology for what happened. Nobody should be cut off. I think that was an unfortunate moment.”

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