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Burlington City Council debates resolution related to police oversight ballot question

Burlington City Hall
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall (file)

On Town Meeting Day, Burlington, Vermont voters will be asked to approve or reject the creation of a Community Control Board to oversee the police department. The controversial question was placed on the ballot by a citizen petition and is supported by city Progressives but opposed by the mayor and Democratic city councilors. A resolution related to the ballot question on Monday evening’s Burlington City Council’s agenda generated considerable public comment and extended debate by the council.

Ward 5 Democrat Ben Traverse was the lead sponsor of a resolution calling for more community input and engagement regarding police oversight and accountability and that “upon defeat of the proposed ballot initiative” a related item be referred to the Ordinance and Charter Change Committees. Traverse said his constituents generally support greater oversight and accountability, but are dismayed by the scope of the ballot question.

“When I talk to constituents about the breadth of this proposed board’s disciplinary authority; the fact that this police control board is not accountable itself to voters; more and more folks are realizing that while they may support greater police oversight and accountability, as I do, this is not the way both in content and in process.”

Supporters of the ballot question packed City Hall urging councilors to reject the resolution. Ward 1 resident Stephen Chieza (“cheese-ah”) delivered a typical comment.

“The Burlington Police Department is only accountable to itself and the police can’t and shouldn’t be the ones overseeing themselves. If you really cared about this, why didn’t you create your own charter change proposal and put it on the ballot? Why are you instead investing your energy now in creating a resolution attacking something that your own Burlingtonians have spent over a year and hundreds of hours getting over 2,000 signatures to get this item on the ballot.”

South District Democrat Joan Shannon questioned whether people who signed the petition to put the question on the ballot were aware of its content.

“I don’t think that the 2,000 people who signed the petition actually read the six-page resolution. They went on trust from what they were told about the resolution.”

Progressives on the City Council support the ballot question. Ward 2 Progressive Gene Bergman took umbrage with the suggestion that constituents did not understand the ballot petition as he disparaged the proposal.

“I just want to say I did collect some signatures. I just heard a councilor say that people didn’t read them. I saw a lot of people go through every stinking page and read things. Not everybody of course. This resolution which presupposes the defeat of the measure does not build community unity.”

If approved, the Community Control Board would be an independent department of the city with an investigative office and a paid board. Councilor Shannon questioned supporters of the ballot proposal about its cost, but Central District Progressive Perri Freeman, the only one who responded, couldn’t recall the estimates.

“What is the estimated cost for this new department to employ a director, hire other staff and consultants and legal counsel to advise a paid board?”

“I’m happy to look through my notes," replied Freeman, "and I want to ball park but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Shannon retorts: “I think Councilor Freeman’s answer was ‘I don’t know’ and it doesn’t sound like anybody else at the table knows, which I think is concerning.”

The resolution passed on a 6 to 4 vote with all the Progressives and one Independent voting nay.

Town Meeting Day ballots will be mailed to all registered voters in Burlington by February 15th.

Town Meeting Day is Tuesday, March 7th.