Mayor ‘comfortable’ with decision that disenfranchises school-budget voters

‘COMFORTABLE’ WITH DISENFRANCHISEMENT: Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on Monday said he was ‘comfortable’ with a decision by election officials not to send absentee ballots to voters for the June 3 school budget election.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

BURLINGTON, Vt. — With two weeks to go until the June 3 special election on Burlington’s school budget, Mayor Miro Weinberger says he is “comfortable” with a controversial decision by city officials not to send absentee ballots to those who voted absentee on Town Meeting Day.

“(It was) the city attorney’s determination in consultation with the secretary of state’s office and election officials. I was aware of the conversation and I’m comfortable with the decision they made,” Weinberger said Monday during a news conference at C.P. Smith Elementary School.

But city councilor Dave Hartnett, along with School Board members Scot Shumski and Keith Pillsbury, made an appearance at the school to urge the mayor to reverse course on a decision that could disenfranchise voters.

“As somebody who represents the new north end, which has the greatest number of absentee ballots, my purpose here is to make sure everybody in the north end and throughout the city has a chance to be able to participate,” Hartnett said.

Shumski, who contacted city officials to find out how many people might be left out of the democratic process, said Burlington residents already are being disenfranchised by the mayor’s decision.

“At this rate, we’re looking at disenfranchising roughly 700 voters who requested ballots the last time,” he said.

According to voter turnout numbers Shumski obtained from city officials, 1,539 voters voted by absentee ballot on Town Meeting Day. By comparing the number of absentee votes cast two weeks out in both elections, Shumski said the vote tally was “running about half the rate that we did before.”

Hartnett, who spoke Monday with Weinberger, said the mayor was willing to “relook at his first statement.” However, Weinberger indicated otherwise during the question-and-answer period at the public appearance.

LET THEM VOTE: School Board Commissioner Keith Pillsbury is among those urging the mayor to let all Burlington residents participate in the upcoming school budget election.

On Town Meeting Day, Burlington residents voted down a $66.9 million budget. City officials now are asking residents to approve an even higher $67.4 million budget on June 3.

School Board Chair Patrick Halladay, who was on hand urging the passage of the budget, said the new budget included $1.5 million dollars in cuts. He cited cuts to kindergarten para-educators, along with an end to the transportation subsidy for students not on the free-and-reduced lunch program.

While such cuts might change the minds of some voters, Weinberger warned against placing too much emphasis on spending cuts.

“I am concerned that too many cuts too quickly and without a deliberate strategy will do considerable lasting damage to that system, particularly in the programs and services that directly impact our children,” he said.

Weinberger assured voters that higher taxes were justified given the board’s steps to clean up the finances, which include an audit diagnosing the cause of the repeated deficits and new leadership.

“After a polarizing vote on Town Meeting Day and months of troubling news about the school district, it is time for Burlingtonians to come together and support the board’s effort to address head-on the financial problems the school district faces, and to show that we value Burlington’s excellent public schools.”

But for Commissioner Keith Pillsbury, the issue of voter disenfranchisement was a cloud over the election process.

“I believe all residents of the city of Burlington … if they are out of the city because they have a job or are in the military or graduate school, if they were interested in voting in March, they should have an opportunity to get the ballot again. … This is a revote on the same issue.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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