The future of the city-owned utility in Vermont’s largest city remains unclear. After extended debate and two rounds of deadlocked votes last night, the Burlington City Council approved a resolution requesting the two finalists seeking to buy Burlington Telecom develop a joint venture.
Because the City Council meeting was a “motion to postpone to a certain date” and therefore a continuation of Oct. 30’s meeting there was no public comment on the evening’s deliberations.
One week earlier, a councilor recused herself from the proceedings, citing a conflict of interest. She rejoined the deliberations on Monday, having resolved the situation, but neither she nor the city attorney would clarify. Burlington councilors then began debating the benefits and pitfalls of the two remaining bidders for Burlington Telecom, the city’s municipal cable and internet provider.
Central District Progressive Jane Knodell, an economist by trade, offered an analysis that summarized the basis for the debate. “We have before us two potential buyers of BT (Burlington Telecom) that are in many ways opposite of each other. Ting is a wholly is wholly owned by a publicly traded corporation based in Toronto called Tucows and KBTL (Keep Burlington Telecom Local) is a new consumer cooperative based in Burlington. There's a stark trade off here. Ting is reasonably well capitalized although not the strongest on this account that we have seen that Burlington loses control of the asset altogether. KBTL offers total local ownership and control of the asset but it lacks an upfront equity base on which to run the company.”
Support from the 12 representatives was evenly divided between Ting and KBTL.
South District Democrat Joan Shannon cited numerous concerns about the local coop’s bid including potential litigation. “KBTL was only advanced because of public interest. Moving KBTL forward will mean either it is vetoed by the mayor, vetoed by Bluewater or vetoed by the PUC (Vermont Public Utility Commission). The clear choice between these two options is Ting.”
Ward 3 Progressive Sara Moore cited the importance of local control. “The reason that I can justify accepting a bid that is so much lower, recognizing that it has its flaws, is knowing that that asset is retained locally. It's not like we're just selling it off. We're retaining it.”
After two hours of discussion, councilors tied and after a recess they voted again with the same result. The majority then voted to cease voting. That allowed compromises to be offered. A brief recess was announced to coordinate options that councilors planned to put on the table. But that pause in proceedings stretched on as a new plan came forth. When the session continued the acting council president called representatives from Ting and KBTL forward to report on conversations that occurred in the hallway during the recess. KBTL Treasurer Andy Montroll and Ting Director of Government Affairs Monica Webb explained.
Montroll: “What we're looking to do is what's best for our community and if there's a desire that Keep BT Local and Ting speak we're certainly happy to do that. We don't know what the end results would be but having conversations and trying to see if there's a mutual way to work through this is certainly an option that we'd be open to looking at.”
Webb: “I think we both recognize that there's philosophical alignment in doing what's best for the community and we talked about some broad concepts that both parties would be agreeable to and we suggested that we work out more details over the coming week.”
The formal resolution was put forth by Ward 7 Democrat/Progressive Ali Dieng. “The city council hereby requests that the Keep Burlington Telecom board, KBTL local, and representative from Ting/Tucows develop a joint venture proposal and deliver it to the city council and mayor.”
Councilor Karen Paul offered amendments to clarify some language in the clauses. Both companies were amenable to the changes.
Representatives from Ting and KBTL must return with a joint proposal by Nov. 13’s city council meeting. The council will vote that night on whether to accept the plan and authorize the mayor to move forward. If a joint plan fails the council will reconsider the four top bidders and choose a winner during its November 27th meeting.