The Perfect Enemy | Burlington City Council Candidates Have Different Approaches to Housing, Public Safety
October 27, 2023

Burlington City Council Candidates Have Different Approaches to Housing, Public Safety

Burlington City Council Candidates Have Different Approaches to Housing, Public Safety  Seven Days

click to enlarge Maea Brandt | Dina John | Jake Schumann - COURTESY OF ALISON REDLICH | SARAH SCIORTINO | COURTESY PHOTO

  • Courtesy Of Alison Redlich | Sarah Sciortino | Courtesy Photo
  • Maea Brandt | Dina John | Jake Schumann

Three political newcomers are vying to fill a city council seat on Burlington’s east side, where residents have been without full representation for two months. In September, Progressive councilor Jack Hanson stepped down in the East District, which covers Wards 1 and 8, to apply for a job in city government. A few weeks later, Ward 8 Progressive Ali House resigned for personal reasons.

Now, Democrat Maea Brandt, Progressive Dina John and independent Jake Schumann are competing to fill the first of those two seats. Early voting is already under way for the December 6 special election in the East District, which encompasses the area east of North Willard Street, plus the University of Vermont campus and student-heavy neighborhoods surrounding Buell and Bradley streets downtown. The winner will serve a three-month term until March, when voters will elect a councilor to a two-year term.

There’s a lot at stake for Burlington’s two political factions. The council currently has two independents, four Progressives and four Democrats. A Prog or Dem win would give that party a plurality until Town Meeting Day, when a Ward 8 special election will return the council to its full 12 members. Leaders of both parties see the current contest as a means to stake a claim to the East District seat ahead of the March election.

“It’s like a mini Town Meeting Day in December,” said Adam Roof, chair of the Burlington Democratic Party and a former councilor. “We’re getting our resources aligned and our people excited.”

The election is also the first-ever council race to use ranked-choice voting, an approach voters approved in March 2021. That means if no candidate wins more than half the votes in the first round, an instant runoff begins. The last-place finisher is eliminated, and the votes they received are assigned to those voters’ second choice. The process continues until one candidate hits the 50-percent-plus-one threshold.

To win the December election, all three candidates have focused on housing and public safety, although their approaches differ. Both John and Schumann have emphasized addressing the root causes of crime to make the city safer, while Brandt has said rebuilding a short-staffed police department is paramount. Brandt, who owns two rental properties, has focused her housing platform on expanding supply to drive down costs. John and Schumann, meanwhile, are both renters who have been housing insecure. They want to expand tenants’ rights and build more affordable housing.

Public safety has been a political flash point since the Progressive-led vote in June 2020 to reduce the city’s police force through attrition. When officers left faster than anticipated, Mayor Miro Weinberger and fellow Democrats blamed the Progs for causing a public safety crisis. Progressives, for their part, have acknowledged they may have acted too quickly amid a groundswell of activism following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police — and allegations of excessive force by Burlington officers against young Black men. The council, including some Progs, has since voted to restore police staffing, though city leaders say it could take years to rebuild the force.

Meantime, an uptick in gunfire incidents and certain types of crime has fueled a feeling that Burlington is less safe. Brandt, 57, the Democratic candidate, said these concerns were central to her decision to run. With recent shootings downtown, Brandt worries about her children walking home from school. And thefts seem on the rise, she said, noting that someone pilfered her bike and that she knows people whose vehicles were stolen.

“Despite the announcement that crime is lower than before, I’m finding that, according to my neighbors, it is at an all-time high,” said Brandt, who lives on North Street. “We need a full police force. I think enforcement of laws and ordinances will help reduce violence and crime.”

A lecturer in the Saint Michael’s College arts department, Brandt has lived in Burlington for 33 years. Besides supporting police hiring, Brandt said she would push for acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad to be named permanent chief. Council Progressives blocked his appointment in January with a 6-6 tie vote, though Weinberger has agreed to keep Murad on “indefinitely.”

Brandt, who is biracial, also emphasized the importance of racial bias training for police and other city departments. She believes Burlington police have done well “recognizing and acknowledging what racial bias is” but said the city can always do more.

John, Brandt’s Progressive opponent, works as a judicial clerk in the Vermont Superior Court system, giving her an insider’s view into crime and disorder in the city. She also sees firsthand the tensions between police and people of color, who have been disproportionately arrested and subjected to use of force in Burlington, data show

John, 22, moved to Vermont from Kenya when she was 4 years old and lives in an affordable housing complex with her parents on Riverside Avenue. Cops are a regular presence there, but John said her fellow immigrant neighbors are afraid to report crime because they don’t trust the police. As a result, problems can worsen, she said; people feel unsafe. John said this dynamic has fueled the recent rash of gun violence, which has had an outsize impact on young men from immigrant families. As a councilor, John said she would advocate for “proactive” conversations to rebuild trust between people of color and police.

“[The mayor] can hire as much police as he wants, but it won’t solve the issue of public safety nor strengthen the relationship between BPD and our community,” John said. “If you want community trust … you have to figure out why it was lost in the first place.”

Schumann, the independent candidate, also has a big-picture take on public safety. The 31-year-old is an emergency medical technician and previously worked as a case manager for a COVID-19 emergency housing program. He said the public safety crisis is rooted in the inability of some people to meet their basic needs, a desperation that leads to crime and drug abuse. Burlington has counted 180 overdoses this year, more than four times the number in 2019. Schumann said the increase justifies Burlington’s attempts to open a safe injection site, an initiative John also supports. Brandt, the Democratic candidate, said she needed to do more research before offering an opinion.

Brandt was also unsure about whether to increase civilian oversight of the police. In late 2020, Weinberger vetoed a Progressive-led resolution to form an independent board to investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct. In recent months, however, a grassroots group called People for Police Accountability has been circulating a petition to put a similar charter change on the March ballot. Both Schumann and John support the effort. Brandt said she wants to talk to constituents before taking a position.

The candidates also offer a mix of views on housing policy, including a Progressive initiative to ban no-cause evictions in Burlington. The measure would have made it illegal to force tenants to move by refusing to renew a lease, a de facto eviction allowed under state law. Landlords would have needed to instead provide a “just cause,” such as nonpayment of rent. Queen City voters overwhelmingly passed the ballot item in March 2021, but Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it this past legislative session

Brandt voted against the measure last year because she believes most landlords try to resolve issues with tenants before evicting them. “The lease requires that they work together,” she said.

She said Burlington has other ways of holding landlords accountable, such as the Housing Board of Review, which mediates conflicts between renters and property owners. Brandt herself lost a case before the housing board in January; the board ruled that she improperly declined to return her tenants’ security deposit. The board disagreed with the tenants’ assertion that Brandt willfully kept the deposit but ruled in their favor because Brandt didn’t notify them of the 30-day window to appeal her decision.

A review of Brandt’s rental inspection records revealed minor violations in her units over the past few years, such as the presence of lead paint and leaky faucets. She also fell behind on her annual registration fees in 2019. She owed the city close to $1,500 at one point, but Bill Ward, the city’s director of permitting and inspections, said such arrearages were common during the pandemic. Brandt acknowledged that she still owes this year’s registration fee but is otherwise caught up.

Brandt said she understands that renters want more stability in their housing arrangements but thinks that boosting the city’s housing stock is a better fix to the problem.

John and Schumann, however, back the “just cause” eviction measure; both have lost housing in the past. John’s family was evicted from an apartment back in 2008, and in 2021, Schumann had to abandon his tiny home in the New North End after the city determined that it violated zoning ordinances. He ended up paying the city a $1,000 fine after the matter went to court. 

If elected, Schumann said he’d advocate for zoning changes to make it easier to own a tiny home in Burlington. He also proposed a program in which the city would provide seed money to a tenants’ union to purchase rental properties. John wants renters to have the right of first refusal if their apartment building goes up for sale. Brandt said the city should pursue denser housing projects, including taller buildings, and suggested new development should be built to strong environmental standards.

All three candidates favor Weinberger’s proposals to rezone parts of the South End for housing and the University of Vermont’s Trinity Campus for more student dorms. And they all want to see more affordable housing in Burlington, including units for homeless residents. 

The candidates are making the most of their short campaign season, participating in forums, knocking on doors and posting on social media. Brandt has raised nearly $5,000 from 40 donors; John, $1,500 from 14 people. Schumann said he’s not actively seeking donations and was the only candidate who didn’t file a financial disclosure by the November 6 deadline.

Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, said voters are excited about John because she has life experience to back up her policy positions. Roof, the Democratic Party chair, said Brandt is communicative and would give her constituents the attention they’ve been lacking. Schumann said he’d govern with the community’s best interests in mind. He hoped that whoever wins would do the same.

“At the end, one of us is going to be the team captain, but we’re still on the same team,” Schumann said. “We can all work on the issues that are near and dear to our hearts and feel like we can get something done.”