What was really at issue in the recent Burlington City Council races? Not a difference of opinion about tall buildings, but a crisis of Democratic process, a scandal of conflicts of interest, and the need to decentralize the power of the City Council so that the interests of the people come first. Democracy should serve the people—a truism that has come to seem downright quixotic, now that the Burlington Business Association is not just advocating for their interests behind the scenes but actually has its own seat on the Council.
In place of Democracy, we have a decision-making process driven by investors who stand to earn millions, and by non-profit organizations which, even as they appear to have our best interests in mind, also have an interest in not solving the problems that justify their paychecks and their grant monies. Political operatives endorse candidates who have repeatedly voted in opposition to their Party’s platforms. Candidates who claim they support affordable housing are not ashamed to have their campaign headquarters and victory parties in upscale properties (or soon-to-be-upscale properties, including the former bottle redemption center) owned by Redstone developers. And Richard Deane, the new Ward 1/8 City Councilor, characterizes himself as a benign dreamer and an artist during his campaign, neglecting to mention that he is also the chair of the Burlington Business Association, which recently enthusiastically applauded a keynote speaker counseling them that it is best to limit public process as much as possible, and that sometimes you “just have to run people over”.
Although the new Council is sure to be even more submissive to our Mayor’s totalitarian (my way or you are an obstructionist) regime, the Neighborhood Power is growing. This may be measured by the fact that at least two freshly elected councilors (Deane and Knodell) have felt compelled to directly attack it. The Neighborhood Planning Assemblies (N.P.A.s) are “dangerous,” we hear. They might foster divisiveness (while City Hall brooks no disagreements!). They are not representative (but an election with a meagre turnout is!). Knodell noted that she believes in a strong Mayor and a strong City Council. But what makes these symbols of centralized power strong? The financial support of the business and developer class, who make sure that the public is sold the false promises they are peddling. It’s not the N.P.A.s we should fear. It is this united block of vested interests that is dangerous. We see it on the national level; why can’t we see it here in Burlington?
Differences of opinion about the value of the N.P.A.s are not new in Burlington. The N.P.A.s, founded in the 80’s, started hemorrhaging power from their inception. In the 1980’s the Burlington Greens, inspired by Murray Bookchin, celebrated the decentralizing, local organizing power of the N.P.A.s. What happened to the Greens is a long story, but for now it is important to know that there was once a radical organization at work in Burlington politics and that this group was in conflict with the Burlington Progressives. People who were around then characterize the Progressives as coming from a Marxist lineage, favoring strong party discipline and hierarchy, a somewhat paternalistic and dogmatic attitude toward public input and dissent, and an emphasis on labor issues and paradoxical belief in trickle-down investment and development. The Greens, in contrast, are described as non-hierarchical, grassroots, feminist, loosely anarchistic, and committed to environmental concerns and neighborhood power.
While the Greens saw the N.P.A.s as the natural venues for establishing and carrying out neighborhood priorities, many Progressives (including our newly-elected Central District City councilor) argued even then against giving the N.P.A.s more binding powers. Why? There are all sorts of claims that the N.P.A.s would be factional or non-representative, but this critique is unconvincing. Consider: 1) how few people actually vote (the elected officials do not have a mandate by any stretch of the imagination), and 2) Town Meetings throughout the rest of Vermont demonstrate that regular Vermonters are more thoughtful and more capable of critical and independent thinking than many of our Burlington City Councilors, who routinely go along with the assertions of the Mayor and his paid consultants. I suspect that the real reason Progressives like Knodell are afraid of the N.P.A.s is because the N.P.A.s threaten their hegemony. Further, it is clear that these Progressives do not respect the judgment and critical thinking skills of the people. Instead, they paternalistically believe that they know what is best for us, even in opposition to what we tell them we need! Power corrupts—but only when it is centralized, entrenched, and used as a cover for myriad conflicts of interest. The power of neighbors advocating for their own interests is just the antidote needed in these murky days. And we must strengthen it, if we are not going to be “run over” by the Burlington Business Association and their collaborators—no matter how humane their benevolent dictatorship may seem.