Candidates for Burlington mayor participate in issues forum
Local elections in Vermont are held on Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March. The four candidates for Burlington mayor participated in a forum recently to discuss how they would guide the city’s future.
The forum hosted by Town Meeting TV and the weekly newspaper Seven Days brought together Democrat Joan Shannon, Progressive Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and Independents Chris Haessly and Will Emmons. They are running to replace Democrat Miro Weinberger, who is not seeking a fifth term.
During opening statements, current South District city Councilor Joan Shannon says the city is at a pivotal point and noted the union endorsements she has received.
“The unions know what Burlington needs in their leadership," Shannon said. "The unions share concerns about our safety. I want all of us to work together to heal, restore and celebrate our Burlington.”
Progressive Mulvaney-Stanak emphasized her experience as a current state legislator and past city councilor.
"I’m running for mayor because I’m deeply concerned about the health and well-being of our city," said Mulvaney-Stanak. "There’s a divisiveness in our City Hall that’s permeating into our community and it is unraveling this community that was so beautifully engaged when I first moved here 20 years ago. So I’m running because I’m uniquely qualified to bring this city back together with my local and state policy experience.”
Haessly is a member of the Church Street Marketplace Commission and served four terms on the School Board. He said he entered the race to focus attention on specific issues.
“The city is facing a number of serious challenges that haven’t really gotten a lot of attention," Haessly said. "We’re facing some serious fiscal challenges here. We’re looking at a deficit. We have an aging infrastructure and we need to hold the line on taxes.”
Emmons used his opening statement to describe his background working as a long-time representative for the postal union.
“The direction that Burlington has gone, there’s a lot to be desired,” said Emmons.
The first question reflected a key issue of the campaign. The candidates were asked how they would restore a sense of safety in the city. Mulvaney-Stanak says public safety needs to be approached comprehensively.
“On one hand we have to get to the root causes," Mulvanek-Stanak said. "We also have to look at those failing systems around basic needs. How there’s a record number of people who are unhoused on the streets of Burlington, a crisis with opioid use and people struggling with substance use disorder. And so, again, not one cause has caused these challenges in Burlington. We’re going to get a right-sized police department and a comprehensive support that really resources social workers and mental health professionals as well.”
Haessley says the city must address the city’s housing crisis before it can successfully address public safety.
“When someone loses their housing it sets in motion a series of events," noted Haessley. "Typically they lose housing, then they lose the job. That can lead to mental health issues which can in turn can lead to substance use disorder and it just becomes a downward spiral. So by fixing the housing problem we can go a long way towards dealing with the public safety challenges.”
Shannon noted her opposition to the city council’s decision in 2020 to cut police department funding.
“We need to rebuild our police department," Shannon said. "I believe we need more police officers. We also need a diversified police and public safety service. We need much better mental health support and we need treatment.”
Noting the city’s investment of pandemic funds to create a pod community and adding staff to help end homelessness, the candidates were asked if they would continue to fund such initiatives. Emmons plans to defund vagrant housing initiatives.
“I think that the state of Burlington right now is a disaster," Emmons said. "And if you take a look at the fact that we’re spending approximately $60-to-79-thousand per homeless person and then think about what it has done to our city. The fact that our businesses and our taxpayers are leaving. We will not have taxes to help anybody soon. So, what is the true cost to our city? Because every business and every person that I’ve interviewed has told me that something has to change.”
Haessley said the pod community and other moves by the city are half measures to address homelessness and substance use disorder.
“We’re treating the symptoms," said Haessley. "We’re not treating the cause of this. What we really need to do is have a conversation about building a new state hospital. Something that will focus on substance use disorder and mental health conditions. But I’d say part of the reason we’re in this situation is because our legislature is failing us. They have not done their work. We need medical treatment for people and this approach is just not working.”
Voters will choose Burlington’s next mayor through ranked choice voting. Town Meeting Day city election ballots will be mailed to all active registered voters in Burlington on February 14th.
Ballots for the presidential primary, also held on Town Meeting Day, must be requested from the City Clerk’s office. In person voting occurs on March 5th.