Vermont Government Rots from the Top

A Weapon of Mass Destruction, F-35, Also Destroys the Democratic Process

[NOTE:  Written before the public meeting on July 8, about F-35 basing in Vermont, this piece predicts the outcome.  The prediction is correct, but most of the post-meeting coverage has less detail, background, and context than this pre-meeting exercise.  The meeting drew about 250 people, lasted almost four hours  — see end for outcome.]

When the city council in a city of just 18,000 people reverses a vote it took a year earlier, it’s not usually off national significance, but if the South Burlington City Council votes as expected on July 8, in support of basing the F-35 strike fighter in Vermont, it will illustrate how deep the tentacles of national power reach into local government in this country.

The F-35 nuclear-capable bomber, designed for aggressive war, is one of the more obvious tumors of the military-industrial-political cancer that has metastasized throughout the American system, from Congress and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., all the way, now, to the five member city council in South Burlington.

In 2012, the city council was led by a retired Air Force colonel who at first supported having the F-35 as a noisy neighbor — until she researched it carefully. After Col. Rosanne Greco, a former Pentagon planner, presented her findings to the council (and the public), the council voted on two separate occasions – 4-1 and 4-0 – that the F-35 should be based elsewhere.

F-35 Boosters Bought the Government They Wanted in South Burlington

And then there was an election in March 2013 in which councilor Pam Mackenzie – who had been the lone vote in favor of the F-35 – helped bankroll perhaps the most expense local election ever, supporting two candidates who are now poised to vote with her and in favor of basing the world’s most expensive weapons system in a city where it will have significantly destructive effects on the civilian population. If it happens, this will be a deliberate and callous vote in favor of inevitable collateral damage, without redeeming social importance.

According to the Air Force’s own study, the F-35 is much louder than the F-16s presently based at Burlington International Airport, and those quieter planes have already made more than 200 homes uninhabitable. The F-35 would render another 1,300 or more homes uninhabitable because of noise – a wholesale destruction of affordable housing in a market where affordable housing is already scarce enough.

None of the public officials who support basing the F-35 in Vermont’s most densely populated area – not the Air Force, not Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy or independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, nor Democratic Rep. Peter Welch nor Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, nor Democratic Mayor of Burlington Miro Weinberger, nor any other statewide elected official – not one of them has even expressed serious concern over the destruction of housing for lower income Vermonters, much less put forward a serious plan to mitigate the destruction.

It’s Military Pork, It’s a Career Boost, Why Should We Talk About It?

Most Vermont political office holders duck the issue entirely, or, like Democratic Speaker of the House Shap Smith, hide behind the fiction that the decision is up to the feds – at the same time the feds are inviting public comment. Smith and his allies have been able to block those House members who oppose the F-35 from getting a serious vote on the issue.

And now the city council of South Burlington includes people who, like Sen. Leahy’s relatives, stand to gain personally from an Air Force decision in their favor.

As soon as Pam Mackenzie, daughter of an Air Force veteran, had funded the successful election of two allies, she enjoyed their support in replacing Greco as council chair, with herself. In May 2012, when Mackenzie was trying to block public discussion of the F-35, a reporter described her publicly stated reasoning this way:

“Pam said that she supports the guard in anything they want to do because her dad was in the air force. That’s it. She voted against providing the public with a forum to question and discuss the impacts of the F-35 because of personal bias.”

Conflicts of Interest Outweigh The Harm The Public Will Suffer

Mackenzie is the CEO of the DeckerZinn management consulting firm. Although she has Air Force ties and spent lavishly to elect allies to the council, she has not apparently made any formal disclosure of conflicts of interest, nor has she apparently recused herself from involving her official duties with her personal interests.

One of her new allies was an opponent when Mackenzie was first elected in 2012. But this time she supported Chris Shaw who describes himself on Twitter as a “husband, hockey dad, teacher, city councilor, justice of the peace, lax bro and responsible renegade — just your average brainy, brawny, balding badboy!”

Shortly after his election, Shaw said: “I don’t have a specific policy change agenda. My agenda is to be a respectful listener.”

What These People Say Has Little Relevance To What They Do

Shaw ran as a supporter of local basing of the F-35, as did the other Mackenzie beneficiary, Pat Nowak, an investment advisor who refused to disclose her party affiliation during the campaign. But they ran as a team, with Mackenzie’s largesse and support of the F-35 in common.

By all accounts, significant outside money also helped make this campaign roughly ten times more expensive than the usual city council races, but Vermont’s campaign reporting laws are such that demonstrating the exact dimensions of a candidate’s spending is difficult.

According to Seven Days, “Shaw and Nowak are representative of a South Burlington ‘old guard’ aligned closely with developers and other business interests.” The Burlington Free Press reported that Nowak and Mackenzie “agreed, for instance, that a new vote on the F-35 is not high on their agenda.”

During the campaign, Nowak said in an interview: “The single most pressing concern for our city is the degree of divisiveness that has entered the everyday processes of operation and decision making. It could be said that great issues are at stake and disagreement is normal and healthy. I don’t believe the atmosphere derives from the issues — they could be settled with research, analysis and civil discussion.”

With An Opportunity to Hear New Health Information, Council Stonewalls

At the July 1 council meeting, four women, three of them elderly and living at a facility within the zone the F-35 will make uninhabitable, asked the council to delay its July 8 meeting for 48 hours. As reported in Vermont Commons:

“All four of the women who addressed the South Burlington city council where soft spoken, polite and brief….

“These women were petitioning for a delay because they wanted citizens to have the opportunity to attend another public meeting, this one regarding the effects of aircraft noise on the health of children, before making up their minds on the F-35 basing. This July 9th public meeting will feature doctors and researchers sharing their knowledge of the health effects of airplane noise on children’s physical and mental health and learning ability.”

At that July 1 meeting, Nowak was absent and unable to support any further “research, analysis and civil discussion.”

Shaw showed little capacity for being “a respectful listener,” as he made personal attacks on his fellow council member, Greco. He adamantly opposed hearing any new information about the F-35 and refused to discuss it rationally, according to the transcript of the meeting.

Mackenzie and Shaw refused to postpone the July 8 meeting. Their minds were apparently made up, their decision made, information of any sort would just waste their time.

As Mackenzie put it, “I don’t have to justify my reasons.”

POSTSCRIPT: Predetermined Vote Plays Out as Pre-Scripted

More than 150 people turned out for the meeting in the stifling local elementary school gym located a quarter mile from the airport runway.

Most of the audience opposed basing the F-35 in their small city. For reasons that are unclear, people in favor of the F-35 got to speak first. Some 70 people in all spoke, overwhelmingly opposed to the $400 billion strike fighter, but council chair Mackenzie called for a vote before all the speakers were heard. Greco objected to this as a violation of the rules of order. Mackenzie plowed ahead.

Mackenzie continued to refuse to explain to her constituents why she was voting as she was. She refused to explain why she was the only council member who wasn’t explaining her vote. She said she would explain something later.

The council voted 3-2 in support of the F-35, as had been decided well in advance.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.