This is a story primarily about corrupt practices by the Burlington City Council, in its headlong determination to force a neighboring city to be the base for a weapon of mass destruction, the nuclear capable F-35 fighter-bomber (in development since 1992, first flown in 2000, still not reliably deployable in 2018, at a cost of $400 billion and counting). Yes, the premise itself is corrupt: Burlington owns the airport in South Burlington, so South Burlington has no effective say in how many housing units Burlington destroys in South Burlington to meet environmental standards for imposing the quiet-shattering F-35 jet on a community that doesn’t want it and won’t benefit from it. The entire “leadership” of the state of Vermont, mostly Democrats, has spent more than a decade making this atrocity happen, with widespread media complicity. And you wonder how we got Trump as President.
Opposition to basing the F-35 in a residential neighborhood is at least as old as the mindless official support, and the opposition has been much more articulate, thoughtful, and detailed. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and Burlington native, has been enthusiastic about militarizing his hometown from the start, treating it as if it should be seen as an honorable piece of pork from the military-industrial complex. Independent senator Bernie Sanders, like Democratic congressman Peter Welch, has hedged slightly in his support, but neither has come close to a cogently articulated position, much less opposition. Governors of both parties have been cheerleaders, especially Peter Shumlin, who took a junket to Florida to listen to an F-35 and decided it wasn’t all that loud (which was shortly before he decided universal healthcare wasn’t all that necessary). Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger, a self-described person-who-builds-things, capsulizes the ostrich view of the F-35, saying, “I think this decision was made a long time ago, and I have not heard a compelling reason to reopen it.” He’s like everyone else in Vermont leadership who has chosen to challenge the Pentagon’s Big Muddy argument (“the big fool said to press on”), regardless of how bogus Pentagon claims have become and despite their lack of compelling reasons to base the F-35 in Vermont.
After decades of falling behind schedule, the Air Force still doesn’t have an F-35 ready to deploy in Vermont before September 2019, if then. With this in mind, F-35 opponents at SAVE OUR SKIES FROM THE F-35s decided to try to get the F-35 question on the ballot for the Burlington town meeting on March 6, 2018.
After drafting the petition, the SOS organizers presented it for approval as to form by the Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood. Blackwood approved it. Volunteers gathered almost 3000 signatures in support of the petition, as approved by Blackwood. In the ordinary course of events, an approved petition with sufficient signatures goes on the ballot as presented.
That’s true even for petitions like the one from the Burlington Anti-War Coalition in 2005 calling for Vermont to bring US forces home from Iraq:
Full Resolution: “Shall the voters of the City of Burlington advise the President and Congress that Burlington and its citizens strongly support the men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces in Iraq and believe that the best way to support them is to bring them home now?”
The city council supported this resolution, it passed in every ward in the city (as well as in 46 other Vermont towns), and it had 65.2% voter support in Burlington. That was easy in 2005, but thirteen years later, with a city council dominated by people calling themselves Progressives and Democrats, the idea of resisting the war machine became, somehow, troubling to at least three city councilors: Republican Kurt Wright, up for re-election, Independent David Hartnett, and council president Jane Knodell, a Progressive whose re-election to the council in 2013 was based in part on opposition to the F-35. She later voted against Progressive proposals to bar the F-35 from Burlington International Airport or to delay any basing decision. A tenured professor of economics at the University of Vermont, Knodell is considered by one fellow councilor “probably the smartest person at the table.” She has acknowledged a desire to be mayor.
Confronted with a resolution that they opposed, Wright, Hartnett, and the “smartest person at the table” decided to abort the democratic process, and to do it dishonestly. They decided, without getting a single citizen’s signature, to put their own petition to the voters, with diametrically opposed effect. They made the city attorney wobbly. The process could hardly have been more corrupt in its intent. None of the three councilors responded to an email inquiry asking, “What are you thinking?”
The SOS petition endorsed by almost 3000 voters is simple and direct:
“Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National guard, and especially their mission to ‘protect the citizens of Vermont,’ advise the City Council to:
1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and
2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?”
The SOS website offers 20 support notes and eight citations supporting the rationale of the petition. The Vermont National Guard mission – “protect the citizens of Vermont” – comes from the Guard’s website. SOS argues that “citizens of Vermont” includes the people, mostly poor and/or immigrant, whose houses are being destroyed and lives disrupted for the convenience of a warplane with no relevant mission in the region.
Knodell, Wright, and Hartnett started their hatchet job by chopping out the clause about the Guard’s mission protecting Vermonters. They didn’t say why, just let the collateral damage lie there. They lied by adding a clause at the end, “recognizing there may not be alternate equivalent equipment,” a lie of intent saved from being bold-faced by the inclusion of “may.” This is the Pentagon’s position, that there is no Plan B, but that’s absolutely dishonest. The only reason there’s no Plan B is because the Pentagon has stalled on the issue for years. They could make a Plan B tomorrow if they so chose. The Knodell amendment looks like a deliberate poison pill added in perfect bad faith. That impression is reinforced when you get to the preambulatory “whereas-es” the Knodell team put before the resolution to weaken it further, but enough already.
The Knodell team didn’t just run afoul of honest behavior and reasonable democratic practice. Their plan to put their own resolution in place of a properly prepared one looked to be illegal as well as unconstitutional.
This set up a confrontation for the city council meeting of January 29, at which F-35 opponents were prepared to object to Knodell chicanery loudly and strongly. The outcome was an anticlimax. The council voted 10-2 (Knodell for it) to accept the SOS resolution as presented. Only Wright and Hartnett dissented. Media coverage of the triumph of reasonable due process varied from straightforward to vaguely mocking to somewhat peevish to rather trivializing. None of the coverage talked about the attempted corruption procedure leading up to the vote, much less the corrupt cultural morass that the F-35 successfully masks with its stealth capability. As currently assessed by the Pentagon, the F-35 can’t shoot straight and has more than 200 other deficiencies, but Australia is going ahead buying 100 of them. An Australian military strategic thinker observed dryly: “It’s disappointing that there’s still deficiencies turning up fairly regularly in an aircraft that we’re already going to get about ten years later than we originally thought.”
The March 6 vote on the resolution is only advisory, so even if there is overwhelming support for an alternative to the F-35, what are the odds of such a democratic choice prevailing? This is the Trump era. He’s asking for the next budget to have $716 billion in military spending, and Vermont seems to think getting some of that money is more important than anything else.