Updated at 10:58 p.m.
Burlington voters on Tuesday denied a proposed charter change that would have created a new, independent control board to oversee the city’s police department. According to results provided by the city clerk’s office, 6,653 Burlingtonians voted against the proposal, while 3,864 voted in favor.
“I think Burlington voters clearly believe that police accountability is important but that this was not the right way to achieve police accountability,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said following the election results.
As worded, the police oversight board would have created a new city department with the power to discipline or remove any of the police department’s members, including the chief.
The Burlington City Council passed a similar proposal in 2020, but it was vetoed by Weinberger. Activists, including a group called People for Police Accountability, gathered enough signatures to get the charter change proposal on Town Meeting Day ballots this year.
People for Police Accountability and Progressive members of the City Council argued the proposal would have been an important step in restoring trust in the police department. But opponents said such a board would have constituted an overreach that would have harmed public safety by prompting members of the department to leave.
A press release sent by Tyler Pastorok of People for Police Accountability after the results were announced noted that the proposal garnered the support of 37% of voters.
“While this was insufficient to pass the measure, it is a clear victory for residents of Burlington keen on revisiting the low standard of oversight to which the Burlington Police Department is subject,” Pastorok said.
Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, said he was disappointed by the result.
“We did support all the charter changes, but I think the fact that we raised that issue, we’re going to see some really good progress on police oversight,” he said.
Though debate over the measure overshadowed many other ballot items in the Queen City, seven other ballot questions were under consideration Tuesday. Below are results of those:
Burlington voters considered three different election changes Tuesday. They approved a measure to allow non-citizen, legal residents to vote in city elections by a vote of 7,143-3,366.
The issue was last considered in Burlington in 2015, when it was voted down.
Another ballot question asked whether to expand the use of ranked choice voting to more city offices. That also prevailed, 6,702-3,701. Ranked choice allows voters to select candidates in order of preference. City council elections started using ranked choice as of the Dec. 6 special election for the East District. This year’s proposal would extend the use of ranked choice to mayoral, school board and ward officer elections.
The final change to the city’s election laws would update the charter to allow some flexibility in where polling places are located. That question was passed by a vote of 7,623-2,345.
Current laws governing polling places say there should be one in each ward. This year’s language would allow a polling place to be located outside the ward if it’s in “close proximity.”
A charter change proposal that would grant Burlington voters the authority to submit city ordinances by petition campaign was voted down. 5,366 voters opposed the measure while 4,787 supported it.
The so-called “proposition zero,” like the police control board proposal, was submitted by petition campaign. Its backers argued the charter change could expand direct democracy in the city and said it would bring the city up to date with other municipalities.
The charter change as worded would have made it possible for city residents to put ordinances, either binding or advisory, on the ballot by petition campaign. It also included language describing referendums, which would have allowed voters to call on the city council to repeal an ordinance.
Proponents of the measure said giving more authority directly to voters would have put Burlington in line with other municipalities in the state that already have ballot items.
But those against it said it could empower special interest groups and lead to an influx of money in local politics, as California has experienced due to its frequent use of ballot initiatives.
Carbon impact fee
A proposal to charge carbon impact fees for fossil fuel energy systems was approved by a vote of 7,046-3,424.
In 2021, Burlington voters laid the groundwork for the proposed fees by passing language that gave the city the authority to charge them. This year’s language described the actual amounts and how they would be assessed.
The new fees, approved by the Burlington City Council in December, would apply to new construction, large commercial and industrial buildings above 50,000 square feet and city-owned buildings. If those buildings do not use renewable sources of energy for heating and cooling, a fee would be charged at the time a permit is issued. The fee would be set through a City Council resolution, starting at up to $150 per ton, and would rise each year depending on inflation, according to the version of the question described on ballots.
Weinberger and Burlington Electric Department General Manager Darren Springer touted the carbon fee plan during a press conference in late January and said the fees were an important step to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Springer said in a presentation that the definition of renewable would include geothermal and air-source heat pumps, wood heating and systems that use renewable fuel supply, such as “renewable gas, biodiesel, renewable hydrogen or renewable district energy.”
District energy is a plan to send steam heat from the McNeil wood-fired power plant to other areas of the city, such as the University of Vermont and the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Critics argued that the definition of renewable is too broad, taking issue with McNeil’s use of biomass and the concept of renewable fuels.
Voters also gave their approval to proposed tweaks to the voting districts in the city by a vote of 7,076-2,681.
The plan would keep the existing eight wards and four districts, each represented by one councilor. The most significant boundary changes in the new map occur around Ward 8, which has long been criticized for including too many on-campus students. The proposed map splits up the on-campus student populations and adjusts Ward 8 to include more permanent residents.
The city is required to revisit its voting districts if a census shows the most populous ward varies from the least populous ward by more than 10%. That occurred during the 2020 Census, and the city council has been working for about a year on several iterations of its redistricting effort.
The city’s website includes an interactive map that details all changes in the proposal.
The budget for the Burlington School District’s 2024 fiscal year passed by a vote of 7,191-3,321.
The budget of $104,144,584 is estimated to increase property taxes by around 4%.
Correction: An earlier version of this story missed a step in how the carbon impact fees will be set.