VT Digger Article: “Democracy, Burlington-Style”

Here’s an article I wrote for the VT Digger news website:

Democracy, Burlington-Style

On Oct. 28, council President Joan Shannon opened the public comment portion of Burlington City Council’s deliberation on the Air Force’s proposal to base the F-35A fighter bomber at the otherwise civilian Burlington International Airport which the city owns and manages. In this honorable ritual of democratic process, citizens were given the deliberative space to present their views on what could be the most important decision the city makes over the next several decades.

Listening and deliberation are the hallmarks of local government. Instead, Councilor Shannon and many on the council arrived with their minds made up. There wasn’t the pretense of objectivity. One councilor plastered his nameplate at the table facing the public with a pro-plane sticker. Others watched the World Series on their laptops. So much for a readiness to listen to all sides.

Prior to this, the council followed the lead of the state’s congressional delegation and Legislature in refusing to participate in any of the several public forums organized by citizens to evaluate the Air Force proposal. Councilors and congresspersons were, in effect, empty chairs at the the forum held at Burlington’s Unitarian Universalist Church to an overflow crowd and boycotted a second planned public meeting at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Let there be no dialogue, they declared by their absence.

Shannon revealed that her mind was made up prior to listening to publicly presented evidence. She issued her opinion the day before the meeting. Her statement was riddled with errors of fact and logic. This, then was the gameplan of the proponents: to refuse to participate in any forum at which facts could be compared and the logic of arguments assessed in the light of day.

Shannon wrote, “The F-35 will not arrive at BTV untested (as is often stated), but rather with 14 years of flying, and 5 years of “operational flight. The F-35 has a perfect flying safety record to date.”

A “perfect” flight record indeed. That is, if you exclude the times when the plane was grounded due to safety reasons. And if you ignore its flight parameters to-date: no night flights, no flights that carry and deploy weapons, no flights in electrical storms, no supersonic flights, no dogfight practice. Ships can’t sink if they never leave drydock. This is such a case. The Air Force and the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, are deathly afraid that any realistic deployment of this plane will reveal its fatal vulnerabilities. So, brushed and polished on the runway, this plane is actually a fraud, a simulacrum of an aircraft, a plywood silhouette of the type the British fabricated to fool the Nazis into thinking their army was bigger and better equipped than it actually was. It is a “usable vehicle” only in the sense that it funnels cost-plus profits to Lockheed Martin and post-retirement consulting jobs to Pentagon brass.

As for the tenor of the meeting at City Hall, the plane’s proponents and the council as a whole engaged in “lifeboat economics,” deciding to toss what they considered the unworthy elements of the community over the side: recently arrived refugees, lower income renters in general, the young and the old near the flightpath, homeowners about to lose 15 percent of the value of their homes, as property analysis in Winooski revealed.

Why this studied facade of democracy? Why did the council abdicate its responsibility to protect the health and property values of voters? In a word, the big players, politically and economically. Though never spoken aloud, defense contracts and development profits based on a massive planned expansion of airport operations were at stake. Rather than discuss such countervailing interests, plane proponents and many on the council chose to wrap themselves in the flag, claiming to be the only ones who understood what it means to be “patriotic.”

There was one “expert” allowed to give testimony, and one only. This was Airport Director Gene Richards, propped up by a team of four other administrative staff. And he needed them. Unable to respond to many council questions himself, he embarrassed himself further as he argued that aircraft noise at any one time is “cumulative,” forgetting that there is only one operative runway at our airport and thus only one plane can land or take off at a time. Nor could he comprehend the fact that the Air Force’s own figures show that nearly all noise in excess of 65 dB is generated by military aircraft and thus status-quo noise caps would have no effect on airlines.

Thus the council was able to check off the box, “consulted experts,” and vote to welcome the Air Force’s newest and dangerous boondoggle.


Link to this article on VT Digger here.

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