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Burlington Mayor discusses controversial report and other city issues

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (file)

Last week, a report on Burlington, Vermont’s Racial Equity Inclusion and Belonging office during the tenure of its previous director was released. It found no fraud but did indicate there had been mismanagement and carelessness in financial management. At this week’s city council meeting, supporters of the office’s former director railed against the report and lashed out against Mayor Miro Weinberger for commissioning it. WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley asked the city’s Democratic mayor if he was prepared for the vitriol.

I've always thought it is really important that at the City Council that that forum be a place where we take on hard conversations; where we have open and, you know, significant debate. And I've tried to do my part to foster and support that kind of discussion. I thought what happened on Monday night went well past that and kind of descended into a level of personal attack that is problematic. Some of the things that were said about me are just completely inconsistent with my vision and values for the city, for that department and I really reject some of the characterizations that were made.

You were at the meeting but you didn't say anything. Was that part of trying to make sure things stayed calm? Were you worried if you said anything it would just amp up the rhetoric?

Yes, by the time we were done with the public forum and there had been a kind of breakdown, that happened a couple of times before we kind of got to the part of the meeting where we were conversing, it was clear that it was not a room where you could have really a productive discussion that night. It did not seem like it would be possible to do that.

When you learned about the situation in Minnesota, that's when you decided to engage in getting the report done for Burlington. What were some of the key concerns and are they similar in the Burlington report?

Pat, yeah, that's exactly right. What prompted us doing this review is seeing the concerning reports out of Minneapolis. In particular concerns that it was clear that the city of Minneapolis at least had the possibility there might be fraud concerns. We were certainly aware already that the ‘22 Juneteenth had gone over budget. We had not had concerns about fraud. So that prompted us to look into it further. And, you know, I'm think it's good news that the review did not find that. Cleared that. And, you know, here's the thing, Pat, like from the beginning of my time as mayor I have always been very focused on responsible management of the city's resources. I've been focused on getting the most value out of our resources especially when we're pursuing equity measures. And I thought after what we were hearing from Minneapolis we needed to know whether you know what exactly had happened here. And that's why we did the report. And I think it does give us the ability now to understand what happened and consider some changes and move forward.

Would those changes relate to other departments? Because there were some people that did bring up points that some of the issues in the report could be similar in other departments and other situations in those other departments.

Well, Pat, first of all I think we've been, it was suggested otherwise, but we've been from my perspective again since the start of my administration very focused on properly managing the public’s resources. Whenever there has been a concern raised there we have looked into them and at times taken action to change, make changes of various sorts. And yes, I think with this review now in hand, there are a couple of recommendations that may well lead to some changes in the way we do city work going forward. You know, in particular, it resonated with me that we maybe could do a more consistent job of training department heads and other staff on the procurement policy, for example. So, we're, that's the kind of thing that's going to be considered now.

Mayor Weinberger, I'm curious about the significance of the motion that was put forward by Councilor Hightower, where initially it stated the continued defamation of character and unwarranted actions taken through city processes, like the audit itself and an apology of the same and asked the HR committee to establish a process for independent evaluation. The city's acting attorney said nope, wait a minute, we need to discuss this. And when they came back she amended it to remove references to you and any sort of defamation. What's the significance of what she initially put forth and her revision of it from your perspective?

So, from my perspective, Pat, the report is done. It speaks for itself. I consider this issue largely closed up for the potential of some follow up work, like we've been discussing. I understand that some counselors may want some further engagement on it. And I think that's what the HR process that was, you know, that's what the committee process that was approved creates a potential for. And, you know, I'm fine with some further discussions.

Are you concerned that the controversy that has swirled up around this is distracting from other issues that the city needs to address?

I, again you know, we did this report because proper management of the city's resources, getting value out of every public dollar, especially when we're pursuing equity initiatives, these are at the center of the way I try to lead the city and really a center of kind of my values and vision for where the city is going. That's why we undertook the report. And I think it puts us in position now to put this behind us and move forward and that's what I'm focused on doing.

Mayor, a couple of non-REIB questions. UVM announced that it plans to build more student housing for about 540 undergraduates. Will that make any kind of a dent in the city's housing stock at all?

Five-hundred-forty more beds is a very positive thing for this community. That's a significant number. I was excited to see them make that announcement. And we are in discussions with them about potential future announcements where even more beds could be built. I think what is important to understand when we're talking about University of Vermont or Champlain College, when they are potentially building more beds, you know, how that impacts the broader housing challenges that we face as a community depends. There's an interaction between that and their growth plans, their efforts to expand enrollment and whatnot. So one of the reasons we are pursuing this agreement with them is so that we can have clear expectations on both sides about what will be happening in the years to come. And it's certainly my hope that with an agreement, we can clearly be working together to take on this massive challenge which I think it's really one of the biggest challenges that we face in this area and that we can be partners in that as opposed to working past each other even in some kind of, you know, adversarial position around housing issues. I'm hopeful we're going to get there. We have some work to do with it still, but it's a priority. It's a high priority of mine.

Mayor, the other thing I've been curious about: a few weeks ago, obviously, after the flooding we had that sewage pipe apparently break underneath the Winooski River. And it seemed once the temporary bypass pipe was activated nobody seemed to talk about it that much anymore. The worry about it seemed to diminish a lot. So, I'm curious, what's the status of repairing that underwater pipe and what's happening there?

So the water resources team has done an incredible job responding to this challenging situation and working on many fronts to minimize the impacts of that break. The temporary line has basically been a great success is my understanding. There's been, of course, some issues, startup issues with getting something like that going. It doesn't, it's not as good as a permanent new solution but it's doing very well keeping waste out of the river at this point. We are still working on a permanent solution. I got a briefing earlier today actually. I know that we had divers in the river, I believe yesterday, trying to diagnose what exactly had happened. It wasn't definitive because there's still a lot of turbulence in the river and it's hard to see exactly what's going on down there. It was interesting to hear they're able to just using their hands do some diagnosis. I think we're still some time from knowing exactly what the long-term solution is there that best protects the infrastructure in the future since it does seem that these major floods are becoming more frequent. And we've seen a couple times now that there's some vulnerability to the infrastructure and the river. We're looking for a way to make it more resilient, less vulnerable going forward. We're continuing to work with FEMA and hopeful that the great majority of the costs that we're incurring both with the temporary solutions and the long-term solutions will have federal money contributing to that work. This has moved remarkably quickly because of the hard work of the team involved and also I think it should be noted, you know, we've made a lot of investments in that team in recent years. We were concerned they didn't have enough planning and implementation capacity. And with the council’s support we have really made that team quite a bit stronger just in the last few years. And that really helped here a lot. I think we would not have been able to move nearly as quickly had we not, with the support of Burlington voters, made those investments and I hope Burlington voters feel good about that, because, you know, they sign off on a lot of the financial decisions with the water resources, and I think that was an important one.

The former director of Burlington’s Racial Equity Inclusion and Belonging office, Tyeastia Green, left the position on March 10, 2022. It is currently held by Kim Carson.

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