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Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger Discusses City Issues

Burlington, Vermont Mayor Miro Weinberger holds a press conference on September 1, 2021
Pat Bradley
Burlington, Vermont Mayor Miro Weinberger holds a press conference on September 1, 2021

The largest city in Vermont is facing a number of issues including a recalcitrant airport manager and controversy over policing. Last week, Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, asked Burlington International Airport Manager Gene Richards to resign after an independent report found he had misused city property and mistreated colleagues. Richards refused. Mayor Weinberger has called a special session of the City Council on September 9th to rescind Richards’ appointment, effectively firing him.

Mayor Weinberger tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley the lag is to ensure that due process is followed.

“This is a termination hearing and it's one in which there's a certain level of due process that needs to be followed and so out of a abundance of caution to make sure that there's proper noticing and time for Mr. Richards to prepare for the hearing, if he does go forward with it, it was to ensure that all that is followed properly.”

Bradley asks, “Now, if the city council does vote to terminate Mr. Richards, what are the possible scenarios? If he still says, Okay, I'm going to pursue legal avenues? What options does the city have?”

“As mayor, I've suspended Mr. Richards without pay at this point,” Weinberger responds. “And I asked him a couple times to resign. He chose not to. The charter is very clear. The department heads once they are appointed they serve at the pleasure of the mayor and the city council and can be removed upon a finding that they are no longer able to be effective,” the Mayor continues, “It's a very straightforward standard that the council has the authority at this point, once the mayor has initiated it, to act on and if a majority of them vote to remove him he is no longer the aviation director. It's that simple. Does he still have some kind of legal recourse? That's always a possibility in employment matters. But, you know, as a kind of immediate matter any remaining uncertainty about his future would be resolved with the council vote.”

“Mayor Weinberger the other issue that's been ongoing over the course of the summer is the increase in crime in the downtown area,” Pat Bradley notes. “And this last weekend, we saw the media reports about a bullet hole in the Edmonds Elementary School which is on Main Street as you come down into the city. What options as mayor do you have with the City Council's continued reticence to even add temporarily more officers to the Burlington police department?”

“Right. You know, I want to be clear,” says the Mayor, “what we've seen is an increase in, a very troubling increase, in shooting incidents. Some of the other metrics that we have for crime actually have continued to go down during this period. But the shooting incidents, it's a dramatic change from our historic standards of only a couple of shooting incidents a year. To see more than a dozen halfway through the year now is a problem and I think is a sign that we need to change the trajectory of public safety in the community. And I do think correcting this I think major mistake made by the City Council a year ago over my objection to reduce the number of officers by 30% that is a critical step that is going to need to happen,” Weinberger says. “I will tell you we will be back in front of the City Council on September 13th asking them to approve a retention plan so that we stop losing officers at this alarming clip. That we stabilize the size of the department. We are pushing for action on immediately. I think very quickly we back to the city council once this operational assessment is complete again for like the fourth time a debate about the right size of the department. Other short term steps that we can and are taking are we've expanded the use of private security guards helping us manage City Hall Park and keep that an appealing place that everybody can access. And we are looking at possible further expansions that can help with a security presence in the downtown at other hours of the day as well.”

“Do you feel,” Bradley inquires, “the word that comes to mind is hogtied when you get complaints from the citizens about the gunfire incidents that are occurring?”

“I certainly am frustrated by the council's actions. I'm shocked. I think was a huge abdication of responsibility that they did not even while acknowledging in the case of numerous counselors that they had been wrong about their initial judgments that they had not anticipated this level of problem, that they nonetheless did not vote to reverse their position I find kind of shocking.” Weinberger continues, “It's the job of the mayor to however always find a way through to address the challenges that come forward. So instead of being paralyzed no I'm working with Chief Murad to come forward with a retention plan to accelerate our plans to bring in community service officers and community service liaisons, these authorities the council has given us to strengthen department in some other areas, and to be creative, such as the use of private security resources when we need to.”

“There’s been a lot of debate lately statewide about masks and mandates being reinstituted, whether the Governor should or not.” Pat Bradley continues, “You reinstituted a mask mandate in the city. What do you think of the debate statewide? Should it be reinstituted statewide?”

“What we've done in the city is for city employees are required to wear masks when they're interacting with the public,” Mayor Weinberger responds. “So there is a mandate essentially for city employees to act consistently with the CDC guidelines. I also have for weeks now recommended that individuals and businesses follow those guidelines as well until we are back down to a moderate level of virus spread. I understand the governor's point that to go beyond these recommendations and put in place new mandates is, is challenging. I think he's right that we are not in an emergency the way we are before.” Weinberger continues, “We've made great progress. And people I hope are holding on to the fact that the very high level of vaccination rates mean that we have a much greater level of safety than we had even just a few months ago. And so I think the governor is right and I support the focus on vaccinations as the first and most important line of defense. And we still, as much as we've done with vaccinations, there are still significant numbers of eligible Vermonters who are not yet vaccinated. We have fallen to number two in terms of vaccination percentage statewide. I think anything that people can do to encourage Vermonters who have not yet taken the step to do so. They should continue to do that.”

“But when you're using the masking protocol as a secondary precaution and you're only doing it in city of Burlington buildings yet you're in the most populous county in the state,” Bradley asks, “how effective can it be as that secondary precaution?”

“So, you know, I support the CDC guidelines because I think it does make sense and I am recommending that people wear masks when they're indoors in public. I'm doing that myself,” says the mayor. “I do think those recommendations are having an impact. You go around the city, many of the businesses do have those recommendations up or even requirements for people when they come into businesses. I had a town meeting last week with businesses and heard directly from many of them that they have put these rules in place and are asking their patrons to follow them. And when you ask, you know, will these work? I do think there's some indication that they are having an impact. We have seen a stabilization for a couple of weeks now, more than a couple of weeks, in the number of new infections per day in the county. And we've seen some stabilization in the other metrics like hospitalizations as well. So I am hopeful that we are, as the state has been modeling has been projecting for some time, getting towards the end of this delta peak and that we will soon really see the case numbers, the infection numbers, start to drop.”

“With the vaccinations,” Pat Bradley notes, “from what I recall, UVM I think announced it has basically a 100% vaccination rate. The colleges in the area do have a very high vaccination rate overall, how important for Burlington is seeing these college students come in with such a high vaccination rate, especially when Chittenden County was labeled with a significant transmission rate?”

“Yeah. I think it's outstanding that we have such high levels of vaccination among the college students who have started coming back.” Weinberger adds, “When you add to that, that UVM has been doing sort of testing before students come back as well as testing around their arrival. They have been a significant partner in ensuring that Burlington has basically been the safest city in the country throughout this pandemic.”

In addition to considering due process and public notice, Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah were factors in setting the termination hearing for the airport manager.

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