Mayor hopefuls strive for student vote

  Two of the three candidates vying to be Burlington’s next mayor squared off in a debate at Brennan’s Pub on Feb. 15.   Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright sparred on topics largely relevant to students.   Independent Wanda Hines didn’t participate, making it her second consecutive debate as a no-show.   Nearly two dozen students attended the debate, and countless other students came and went, tuning in while they ate dinner.   At the debate, the candidates offered their polished platforms.   Wright emphasized the need for citizenship, not partisanship, while Weinberger promised to provide a fresh start for the citizens of Burlington.   Wright said that as mayor, he would work hard to restore the trust and credibility to the office, and to better relations among all members of the community.   Weinberger said he would provide fresh ideas, experience and vision to City Hall as mayor.   Moderators Ellen Anderson and Anthony Gierzynski, both associate professors of political science, posed questions submitted by students to SGA via social media outlets prior to the event.   The candidates addressed issues including housing scarcity and conditions, town-gown concerns, noise ordinance policies, economic development, quality of life for Burlington’s homeless population and lowering the legal drinking age to 18.   The candidates saw eye to eye on a number of topics, but differed on some.   Both favor lowering the legal age to drink to 18, but cited the loss of federal highway funding that would result as an obstacle to doing so.   “I do think there’s a fundamental injustice to having a situation where someone can be sent off to war for this country and die for this country and not be able to legally drink,” Weinberger said.   They also had high praise for the Burlington Police Department’s handling of students’ impact on the community, but said that efforts need to be made to improve communication and relations between the two.   “It’s about working together with a cooperative spirit,” Wright said.   Weinberger said that making students aware of what is expected of them as members of the community will foster better relations between students and police, and will allow the police to effectively address more significant problems.   “There are students in our neighborhood that feel like the only time police come to their door is when they’re enforcing noise ordinances, and at the same time there are real crime problems in those parts of town,” he said.    This relationship will likely be one of the many issues addressed in the new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Burlington and UVM, set for negotiation and implementation this fall.   Creating a comprehensive MOU that takes into account the interests and concerns of all stakeholders won’t be easy, but both candidates said that realizing the shared benefit that UVM and the city provide to each other is a good place to start.   “The success [of UVM] is vital to the success of Burlington,” Wright said.  “I think our futures are intertwined completely.”   And although meliorating relations among community members will take a collective effort, the candidates agreed that the colleges in Burlington bear the burden of providing resources, as well as outreach and education programs.   Improving the town-gown relationship must also involve confronting the onslaught of student migration to downtown housing, according to the candidates.    They offered contrasting approaches as to how to do so, though.   Wright supports building new housing projects for low-income residents and seniors to free up existing housing downtown, and to concentrate students in those areas.   “We need to build more housing, particularly in the downtown area,” he said.  “We need housing of all kinds. We need affordable housing; we need senior housing.”   Weinberger said increasing competition is the best way to lower market prices, and directed attendees to his website for specifics of his plan to achieve this.   His plan seeks to increase the stock of student housing to move students from the downtown area, which will drive market prices down and allow permanent residents to repopulate those houses; it will also better student-family relations.   Weinberger drew applause from the crowd after he knocked Wright for touting his effectiveness as a city councilor in dealing with housing issues, while shifting blame to others for unsuccessful attempts taken under his direction to reform city housing ordinances.   “Leadership means you’re not at the mercy of these other bodies and processes; it means you get it done,” Weinberger said.   Improving the quality of the existing housing is also a priority for both candidates.   To accomplish this, they proposed more frequent inspections, stricter code regulations and increasing fines for regularly noncompliant landlords.   First-year student Alisha Sud said she liked that Weinberger articulated clear solutions to many of the issues.   “I liked how Miro actually put forth plans, unlike Wright,” she said.   Junior Alma Arteaga said she hopes the candidates’ trip to campus will encourage student participation in the election, which will take place on March 6, coinciding with UVM’s spring break.   “I’m really hoping that students remember to vote if they’re not going to be here,” she said.  “We need to be more attuned to this, and I appreciate the candidates coming directly to campus,” she said.”   Students who will be out of town but still wish to vote are encouraged to fill out absentee ballot applications, which are available at the SGA office in the Davis Center.